published Tuesday, June 26th, 2012

Plaintiffs seeking injunction to stop Hamilton County Commission prayers immediately

Plaintiffs Brandon Jones, left, and Tommy Coleman, right, led a June 25, 2012, rally on the second level of the Hamilton County Courthouse. The group attended the Hamilton County Commission meeting to address commissioners on their belief that a moment of silence should open government meetings instead of prayer.
Plaintiffs Brandon Jones, left, and Tommy Coleman, right, led a June 25, 2012, rally on the second level of the Hamilton County Courthouse. The group attended the Hamilton County Commission meeting to address commissioners on their belief that a moment of silence should open government meetings instead of prayer.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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Should the county commission be allowed to pray before meeting?

Two men who have filed a federal lawsuit to stop Hamilton County commissioners from praying before meetings want the invocations to stop even before the lawsuit is resolved.

Robin Flores, who represents plaintiffs Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones, filed a motion Sunday seeking a preliminary injunction -- an order temporarily requiring an opposing party to refrain from a harmful behavior before the court has a chance to decide the case.

"It needs to be stopped," Coleman said Monday. "A preliminary injunction will do that the fastest. We're trying to stop the civil rights violation as soon as we can."

The plaintiffs' original lawsuit, filed June 15, argues that county commissioners' recent public prayers, most of which end with "in Jesus' name," violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which says a government body cannot endorse any particular religion.

Jones and Coleman named the nine commissioners in their official capacity and County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, who led a June 6 prayer.

On Monday, Hamilton County commissioners deferred questions about the prayer lawsuit to the county attorney's office, but Taylor said he could not comment on the merits of the case because he's a named party in the lawsuit. He confirmed that the county will be seeking outside counsel in the matter.

"We have not agreed yet" on an attorney or firm, he said.

Earlier this year, the county retained local firm Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel when it filed a suit against Occupy Chattanooga protesters camped out on the County Courthouse lawn.

Flores' new motion relies on a federal decision in a Rutherford County case, laying out four factors the court must consider when deciding whether to issue the injunction. Those include "the plaintiff's likelihood of success, whether the plaintiff may suffer irreparable harm absent the injunction, whether granting the injunction will cause substantial harm to others, and the impact of the injunction on the public interest."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee sued Rutherford County for posting the Ten Commandments, and a federal judge in the Middle District of Tennessee issued a preliminary injunction in the suit.

No hearing date has been set in suit against Hamilton County, which is assigned to the court of federal Judge Harry S. Mattice.

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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