published Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

Chattanooga: Plaintiffs plan to appeal judge’s decision not to temporarily halt prayers

  • photo
    U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Hamilton County Commission Prayer Case: Order on Motion for Preliminary Injunction
Hamilton County Commission Prayer Case: Order on Motion for Preliminary Injunction

Plaintiffs Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones plan to appeal U.S. District Judge Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice’s decision not to issue a temporary halt to the Hamilton County Commisson’s weekly prayers.

“We are certainly going to appeal to the Sixth Circuit the injunction ruling immediately,” Coleman said.

Orders on preliminary injunctions, though they are not final decisions on the underlying cases, can be immediately appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Though Mattice decided that plaintiffs Coleman and Jones did not present a case that reached the high bar necessary for a preliminary injunction, his decision stopped short of saying that the county’s new policy will be found constitutional.

The court explained a continuum of options counties have for writing prayer policies and concluded that the county crafted a policy “authorizing some denominational prayer while taking care to ensure that its public recitation does not proselytize listeners, advance one religion or disparage another, or otherwise affiliate the government with any specific faith.”

“In so choosing, it has assumed — on its own behalf and on behalf of the citizens and taxpayers of Hamilton County — the responsibility of ensuring that its policy is implemented in a manner that respects both the rights of its citizens and the commands of the First Amendment,” Mattice wrote. “Whether it will actually affect its policy in such a fashion has yet to be seen.”

Coleman and Jones filed suit in June after commissioners refused to bow to their request to hold a moment of silence instead of prayers. They alleged violations of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and sought no money, except for attorney’s fees.

The pair later filed a motion for preliminary injunction seeking to halt the prayers until Mattice could rule on the underlying case.

On June 27, Mattice ordered a hearing on the motion. The next week commissioners added a late item to their meeting agenda and passed a new prayer policy aimed at ensuring diversity of religious representation.

Then, on July 12, a Hamilton County sheriff’s deputy escorted Coleman out of a commission meeting where he was sitting quietly. He later amended his complaint against the county to include allegations that they violated his Fourth Amendment right against government seizure and a $100,000 claim for damages.

The county agreed to allow the suit to be amended in exchange for commissioners and County Attorney Rheubin Taylor being dropped from the suit in their individual professional capacities.

Though the judge ruled on the motion, a decision in the case won’t be made until all the facts and legal arguments are presented at trial, if it progresses that far.

Read the full history of the lawsuit on chattagov.com

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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