published Friday, June 29th, 2012

Judge orders hearing on prayers; meeting opens with invocation (with audio)

Steven Disbrow speaks Thursday to urge the Hamilton County Commision to discontinue prayer before their meetings.
Steven Disbrow speaks Thursday to urge the Hamilton County Commision to discontinue prayer before their meetings.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
Audio clip

Prayer at today's Hamilton County Commission Meeting

Hamilton County policy regarding invocations
Hamilton County policy regarding invocations

COMMISSION PRAYER

"Our heavenly father, we come today in the name of your son Jesus to exalt your name and to thank you, God, for another day you've given us to enjoy your creation.

"Lord, we want to thank you first of all today for our salvation. We thank you for saving us, for placing our sins upon that cross and forgiving us.

"And Lord we thank you that we can rejoice in that, not in any righteousness that we have of our own but because of what your son Jesus did for us, Lord, we are forgiven. Thank you for your forgiveness.

"Lord, I pray for this meeting today, I pray for these commissioners, God, that you would touch them, that you would lead them, that you would guide them in their decision making. I thank you for these men, I thank you for the leaders of county and of our city, God, that they choose to lead and give direction. And I know the word tells us that they are there for our good, for our benefit.

"Lord, it is a tough day but your word has told us that this day would come, that in the last days perilous times would come, that it would be a time when people would be unthankful, unholy, and ungrateful. It would also be a time of lawlessness when men and women would choose to go their own way and ignore what is right.

"So father, I thank you Lord, for our leaders. I thank you for them choosing, God, today to do what is right. And I pray that you would give them courage. I thank you for the courage that they have shown in this meeting to allow prayer to be made at the beginning of this meeting.

"I pray that you will continue to bless them. I pray for our county and our city, I pray for its prosperity that you would bring jobs and that you would create an atmosphere of love and community together in our county and our city. We thank you and we give you praise in the name of Jesus, amen." -- Calvin Nunley, pastor of Christ Family Church

Two camps of residents -- those asking Hamilton County commissioners to convert their invocation to a moment of silence and others imploring them to keep praying -- filled the commission meeting room Thursday morning.

The clash came the morning after U.S. District Court Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice ordered a July 26 hearing to consider whether to grant a preliminary injunction to halt the prayers until he can rule on a lawsuit filed earlier this month by residents Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones. The suit argues that the commission's invocations, which often close with "in Jesus' name," violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

"Lord, it is a tough day, but your word has told us that this day would come, that in the last days perilous times would come, that it would be a time when people would be unthankful, unholy and ungrateful," Calvin Nunley of Soddy-Daisy's Christ Family Church prayed at the start of the meeting.

After the invocation, commissioners gave Nunley their customary token of thanks -- a clock.

Resident Steven Disbrow, a local business owner who attended with his two children, spoke during the public comment period, challenging commissioners' reactions to Nunley's words.

"I was offended beyond belief by the prayer that was given today, when myself, my friends and my children were singled out by the pastor as being lawless and wicked, and then not one of you spoke up to address that, but you gave him a reward," he said.

Lawsuit plaintiff Coleman called the commissioners "an obstinate and exclusionary government body."

Four residents also rose to defend commissioners' actions.

"We are opposed by a small, small, small, small minority," Floyd Shadrick said. "I would say to that minority, if they're not happy with Hamilton County, Delta is ready when you are."

The public comment period was laced with occasional shouts from the crowd, a boo, laughter and applause.

Once public comments were finished, commissioners met for a closed legal session to consider how to proceed in the four weeks leading up to their first federal court date over the lawsuit.

The suit names each commissioner and County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, who announced Thursday that outside counsel would represent commissioners and Taylor in the suit on a pro bono basis.

The Alliance Defense Fund will represent commissioners. The national legal organization "provides the resources that will keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel through the legal defense of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, marriage and the family." Local counsel will be Steven Duggins, who is also working on a pro bono basis, Commission Chairman Larry Henry said.

In addition to retaining counsel, commissioners are also moving forward with a policy for invocations.

Commissioner Jim Fields, chairman of the Legal Committee, worked with Taylor's office to draft a new policy for selecting invocation speakers. The policy would create a countywide clergy database, to be updated annually. Drawing from that, commission staff would send invitations each year and those who respond will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis.

"The policy is intended to be and shall be applied in a way that is all-inclusive of every diverse religious congregation in Hamilton County," the draft policy states.

Commissioners are expected to vote on the policy next week.

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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