published Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

Hamilton County Commission prayer policy called a 'sham'

U.S. Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice will have at least one new brief to consider as he rules on a motion to stop temporarily the Hamilton County Commission's prayers during meetings.

Robin Flores, attorney for plaintiffs Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones, filed a supplementary brief Sunday night ahead of Wednesday's deadline.

Mattice gave both sides the option of filing supplementary briefs to answer questions he posed in a July 26 hearing. He said he would decide as quickly as possible after receiving them whether to grant the preliminary injunction to halt the prayers while he makes a final ruling.

In Sunday's brief, Flores argues that the court should consider a new prayer policy passed on July 3.

"There was not only a lack of an attempt to repeal any past practices, but the current defendant's resolution actually embraced past practices," Flores wrote. "The videos show no change in the manner in which the defendant's meetings begins [sic], and the prayers remain especially sectarian."

In its new policy, the commission keeps the prayers but opens them up to ministers across Hamilton County on a first-come, first-served basis.

Flores said the policy is a "sham."

He also answered another question Mattice posed to his clients. Mattice wanted to know if Coleman and Jones think the Constitution requires governments to be nonreligious.

In Jones' July 26 testimony, he said he doesn't.

Citing a U.S. Supreme Court decision, County of Allegheny v. ACLU, Flores quoted, "A secular state, it must be remembered, is not the same as an atheistic or antireligious state. A secular state establishes neither atheism nor religion as its official creed."

As of press time, the county had not filed an optional brief, though it has through Wednesday's deadline to do so.

Mattice asked one of the county's attorneys, Stephen Duggins, for a brief explaining whether the policy commissioners passed on July 3 necessarily will yield sectarian prayers.

Mattice said in the hearing that he's found at least two instances in which the federal appeals court that deals with Tennessee cases interpreted a key U.S. Supreme Court decision on legislative prayer, Marsh v. Chambers, to allow only nonsectarian prayer.

"That's only a couple, there may be others," Mattice said.

Basil Marceaux Sr. filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit Monday. Mattice denied motions of two previous would-be intervenors, Charles Wysong and June Griffin.

Contact staff writer Ansley Haman at ahaman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.

about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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