Judge Rules That Opening Prayers Can Continue at Hamilton County (Tennessee) Commission Meetings April 22, 2015

Judge Rules That Opening Prayers Can Continue at Hamilton County (Tennessee) Commission Meetings

For years now, the Hamilton County Commissioners (in Tennessee) have been praying at their meetings. These were often sectarian Christian prayers, and in 2012, Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones — both college students — filed a lawsuit against the county saying they were violating the Establishment Clause.

Brandon Jones (left) and Tommy Coleman

Since then, as we know, the Supreme Court has made this issue moot. Sectarian prayers are allowed… but they must be open to everybody, not just Christians.

At one point, Coleman, an ordained minister despite being an atheist, asked to deliver an invocation but was denied because he wasn’t affiliated with a tax-exempt religious institution. (Would he have been allowed to speak if he was part of a non-profit Humanist group? Maybe, but nobody tested this.)

Today, after a lot of back and forth in the legal system, U.S. District Judge Harry Mattice echoed previous rulings. Using the Supreme Court’s Greece v. Galloway decision as a basis, Mattice said that the Commissioners’ policy didn’t favor one religion over another and therefore didn’t violate the Constitution.

Plaintiffs have failed to present to the Court any evidence or argument that Defendant’s prayer policy is implemented in a way that discriminates against particular faith systems, either intentionally or unintentionally. Their argument that the policy discriminates against each and every individual who is not an eligible member of the clergy affiliated with a bona fide religious assembly simply has no basis under current legislative prayer jurisprudence.

There was another incident in 2012 involving Coleman being kicked out of a meeting (unlawfully, in his opinion). The judge said that there’s a “factual dispute” about what happened, so that part of the case may continue. But it won’t affect the prayer decision.

The judge wrapped up his ruling with this dose of snark:

And so, like the world, this lawsuit ends not with a bang but a whimper. What began as a case with the potential for significant constitutional implications in the area of Establishment Clause jurisprudence ends as a run-of-the-mill seizure case of little or no precedential significance. Only because there exists an apparent factual dispute concerning the precise events and circumstances which gave rise to the alleged illegal seizure will the competing versions of those events be submitted for trial.

The atheists’ attorney says they’ll appeal (again):

“Dissapointed but we’ll appeal,” said the Plaintiffs’ Attorney Robin Flores. “The way Hamilton County has been doing the prayers is almost turning the first few minutes of this government function into a church service and thats not the purpose of government.”

(Thanks to Brian for the link)


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