Federal judge: Hamilton County prayer policy constitutional

Friday, April 17, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 16

NASHVILLE (AP) - Hamilton County may continue asking local clergy to deliver prayers before commission meetings.

In a Wednesday ruling, U.S. District Judge Sandy Mattice cited U.S. Supreme Court decisions that prayers offered before the meetings of legislative bodies are constitutional.

He quoted a 2014 Supreme Court decision that reads, in part, "legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society."

Two Chattanooga men had claimed that the prayers given before Hamilton County Commission meetings improperly promote Christianity. Mattice rejected those claims. In his order, he noted that Jewish and Unitarian Universalist clergy have been among those chosen to give invocations.

Hamilton County selects invocation speakers from a list of all the religious congregations represented in the local Yellow Pages. Institutions not on the list, may request inclusion. The commission does not review the invocations in advance and only asks that the prayers neither proselytize nor denigrate the religious faith or non-religious views of others, according to court documents.

As part of the lawsuit, plaintiff Thomas Coleman complained that his request to deliver an invocation before the commission was rejected after he declared that he did not represent any religious assembly or congregation. Mattice ruled that the county is under no obligation to allow every individual who asks to deliver a prayer.

Mattice said the courts have established that legislative prayers cannot be used as a pretext to promote one faith over another, but they may favor religion over non-religion.

The judge ruled in Coleman's favor on one aspect of the case. Mattice said Coleman, could move forward with a claim that he was illegally removed from a county commission meeting. Mattic e ordered Coleman's illegal seizure claim to go to trial.