Two months ago, two young atheists filed a lawsuit in Tennessee. They wanted the Hamilton County Commissioners to stop praying — in Jesus’ name, no less — at meetings. They wanted the commission to replace the prayer to with a moment of silence because, in the words of one of the plaintiffs Tommy Coleman:
We are doing this for everyone of every faith [and] people of none. It is only through a moment of silence that everyone is heard.
Also involved in the case is Gordon Maples, the founder of the Southeastern Collegiate Atheist Alliance (though you may know him from Atheists in Hats). He’s been supporting the duo, including taking a trip to the area. In his words:
I knew Tommy previously through SECAA due to his involvement with the Chattanooga State Community College SSA, and for his interest in starting a group at his current school (UT-Chattanooga).
I happened to catch wind of what was going on with the County Commission through him, and have been following it nearly from the beginning. My role in it has mostly to try to bring attention to the case, and shine a spotlight on these two students who have stood up on their own against a mostly hostile community. They need and deserve the movement’s support in this endeavor.
Though Gordon, like Tommy and Brandon, believes this to be a textbook case of failure to separate church and state, he cautions,
I think we could be a long way from a conclusion. Both sides seem prepared to take this up the ladder.
Despite dealing with the court case and school, Tommy and Brandon took some time to answer a few questions about their involvement in a contentious church-and-state lawsuit in the Bible Belt.
Can you each give me some background on yourselves?
Tommy: I am in my junior year studying psychology at the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga. I am just getting started as an undergrad researcher currently involved in a cross cultural study of what it means to be “spiritual” this day in age. UTC is one of the leading colleges for studying Psychology of Religion in America so I feel right at home.
At twenty-eight-years-old now I can look back and say I spent a lot of time finding myself, 13 years to be exact. I was a hopeless drug addict from ages thirteen to twenty-six but I expect to find myself with over two years sobriety this winter. I am a single father raising my six-year-old daughter with the help of my very supportive family.
As far as getting involved, well, we saw there was a problem, a chance to make something better and we happened to be in a position to act, so we did. This may seem overly simple but this was the thought process our heads at the time.
Brandon: I am going back to finish my bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at UTC in the fall. It will probably take me another 2 or 3 years because I’m working full time to support myself. I dropped out when I was 20 years old, I’m 25 now. I was kind of lost at the time, I didn’t really want to be in school but it seemed like the thing I was supposed to do at the time; I didn’t really value my education, so I drank and partied until I lost my scholarships. I had no real life experience to speak of when I left school and my family made it clear to me that I was on my own. I got an apartment with my brother, who’d left school at the same time as me for the same reasons, and started working my way up through the ranks of various IT departments over the years. About 4 years ago I joined the Chattanooga Freethought Association. Back then there were only about 15 members but we were very tight-knit. Over time we grew the organization to what it is today, a thriving social club of mostly non-religious people boasting over 400 members. Tommy and I met through this organization where we are both currently Board Members.
I got involved when Tommy contacted me and said he wanted my help to do something about these prayers at the commission meeting. I thought it sounded like a fantastic idea and agreed immediately. I take issue with my government proselytizing [to] its citizens with their sectarian prayers, excluding other people by endorsing a religion as if it’s the state religion, and I want them to stop.
How long have you been atheists?
Tommy: I would say since birth. I do prefer the term Secular Humanist as it says a lot more about me and what I believe then the one thing I don’t.Brandon: I think I realized I was an Atheist when I was about 14 and I came out to my family and friends when I was 16, so about 11 years now. I’m an Absurdist and if there is anything I do believe in, it’s in the potential of people to become something greater than the sum of their parts. People are worth being treated as an end unto themselves, and not merely as a means to an end, which is how they are treated, unfortunately, all too often, within our current society. To restate all of that in the simplest possible terms, I believe in the inherent value of mankind.
To the best of your memory, what were your expectations going into this?
Brandon: That first day we went into the commission meeting, I’m not sure either of us knew what to expect, how we would be received, etc. I know that as we were preparing to make our case in front of the commission for the first time back on June 6th it became apparent that no one had ever stopped endorsement of religion by our government without at least threatening a lawsuit, so I wrote that into my piece. After we were outright ignored by the commissioners it became clear to us that if we wanted to make any headway on this, and we obviously did, we would have to sue them.
What do you think now?
Tommy: I think in many aspects we have already won. The amount of awareness raised, the fact people of all faiths, even Christians, support what we are doing in our town is a win. When local newspaper columnist David Cook, a Christian wrote about the Hamilton County Commission saying, “It should lose, in order to win. Instead, it bullies and excludes.” So even if we were to lose in court tomorrow, we will have still won!
Brandon: As for our expectations now, I’d say we expect reason to prevail in the courtroom, we expect to win. If it ends up that we don’t ultimately win the lawsuit at its last appeal (and you can expect that whichever side loses will appeal it to the highest courts) we will have at least raised awareness and sent an important message to citizens and governments alike, which is that The People have power, even a small but dedicated group of individuals can become tough opponents of injustice within our government. Tommy and I don’t have two pennies to squeeze together, we don’t even have transportation, and yet somehow we are battling a commission consisting of some of the most powerful men in our city. I think this shows that there’s no excuse for letting these things slide. You can go out and get a lawyer; you can find the time and energy. I’m a part-time student and full-time worker; if I can find the time and means then so can anyone else. If that doesn’t inspire others to similar action, I don’t know what will.
What has been the reaction from peers? The town? Family members?
Tommy: Our friends all support us and my family supports us, so support from those two categories are not lacking. The town, well that depends on who you talk to honestly; we have people who tell us Hell will shake when we hit the bottom and others who think we are heroes.
Brandon: Our friends have all been really supportive. The town has been split on this issue from the beginning, but I believe we’re slowly turning the tide of public opinion. My family has not been terribly supportive. My Grandmother seems to think I’m attacking Christianity and that I’m embarrassing the family. I tried to tell her that we’re standing up to an infringement of the Constitution by our government, that what I’m doing will allow people, during the moment of silence, to pray to whomever they wish to pray to, and that she should feel proud of me, but she can’t seem to see eye to eye with me on any of these matters. Most of the rest of my family has just been really quiet and sort of distant, which is in keeping with how things have been since I came out as an Atheist all those years ago. There is one exception: one of my brothers is also an Atheist and is a very enthusiastic supporter of what we’re doing. It’s good to know at least one member of my family openly supports these efforts.
Any thoughts on the outcome?
Tommy: We are very optimistic. We have already made an impact for the better. We are dedicated, ready, and prepared to take this to the Supreme Court if necessary.
Brandon: Like Tommy said, I’m optimistic. Even if we don’t win this law suit I think we can be pretty confident that others will succeed where we failed eventually and if we win then people will have a shiny new legal precedent to help them fight this issue within their own local governments. As I see it, Tommy and I are on the right side of history and it’s only a matter of time before this issue is resolved all across America.
To help with upcoming court costs — anticipated to be about $5,000 regardless of the outcome, you can donate here.