published Friday, November 30th, 2012

Plaintiff in Hamilton County Commission prayer suit asks to lead invocation

The man who has sued the Hamilton County Commission to halt Christian prayers before its meetings asked Thursday to lead an invocation in the coming weeks.

Tommy Coleman, a student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and self-avowed secular humanist, formally asked commissioners Thursday to abide by their new prayer policy to include him in the list of ministers invited to lead invocations.

"I wanted to see if they would actually honor their own policy to members who were open to some form of nonbelief," Coleman said after the meeting.

Commission Chairman Larry Henry told Coleman to speak to the commission's administrative assistant to possibly arrange a date.

The commission passed a prayer policy July 3, shortly after Coleman and Brandon Jones filed a federal lawsuit alleging the county had violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause by holding Christian prayers before meetings.

Coleman said he became ordained in the Universal Life Church in July. The organization, which primarily fosters online affiliation, abides by the singular tenet, "Do only that which is right."

Coleman's request came after Rev. Edward Bridges of the Universal Life Church opened Thursday's meeting. Bridges asked for a moment of silence, during which he said people of all faiths were welcome to "pray to the deity they hold dear."

"In the same moment of silence, I encourage people of good conscience who do not recognize deities to contemplate, to reflect, to meditate upon the proceedings of this governmental body in which we have placed our trust," Bridges said.

The lawsuit by Coleman and Jones is pending in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga.

In August, a judge denied a request for a preliminary injunction to temporarily halt prayers before commission meetings. Coleman and Jones have appealed.

Coleman said his request did not contradict his lawsuit's aim.

"I have a very positive outlook about how the case will come out for a moment of silence," Coleman said. "But Plan C -- the very last plan we have -- is just to at least have an alternate point of view represented at the invocation besides the status quo that has always existed there."

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