published Saturday, March 9th, 2013

Hamilton County Commission mulling atheist invocation

Brandon Jones, left, and Thomas Coleman, right, lead a rally on the second level of the Hamilton County Courthouse in this file photo.
Brandon Jones, left, and Thomas Coleman, right, lead a rally on the second level of the Hamilton County Courthouse in this file photo.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Lawyers for Hamilton County are still deciding whether an atheist minister is eligible to perform an invocation to a County Commission meeting.

Thomas Coleman, one of two men suing the county to put an end to prayers before commission meetings, asked to perform the invocation in November. In January, after being asked in an email by the county what church he represented, Coleman explained he was not religious, did not have an assembly but was an ordained minister and wanted to speak during the invocation.

Since then, he said, he hasn't heard anything back.

In the meantime, 32 clergy members from various Protestant churches -- and clergy of the Baha'i, Russian Orthodox and other faiths -- have been scheduled to give the invocation for commission meetings through most of October.

Chris Hixson, legislative administrator for the Hamilton County Commission, manages the invocation list. She said Thursday that, generally, "everyone who has requested has been scheduled." But that's not the case for Coleman.

Hixson said she received Coleman's request, but she was waiting for an OK to add him to the list.

County invocation policy -- which didn't exist until Coleman and Brandon Jones filed their lawsuit in June -- states that those wishing to give the invocation must have tax-exempt status as a religious institution.

But because Coleman has no church or church property, he has no reason to be shielded from tax.

To err on the side of caution, Hixson put the question to the county's lawyers.

Steve Duggins, who is representing the county in Coleman's case, said Thursday he knew Coleman made the request but he "[didn't] know any present status" on the issue.

Coleman said Thursday the delay in his placement on the list helps his case.

"I certainly think it speaks volumes that it's not the all-inclusive process they say it is," Coleman said.

The county's policy, according to Coleman, only respects "established, nonprofit religions" over new or different forms of worship.

While Coleman's suit seeks to end spoken prayers at meetings, he said he is not trying to push atheism on anyone.

"We have no stance on religion or nonreligion. What is all-inclusive is a moment of silence," Coleman said. "With a moment of silence, there is really an act of religious freedom. Have one, and I guarantee you'll have more prayer in that room than you ever have."

The Court of Appeals for the U.S. 6th Circuit will hear arguments April 24 on Coleman's case against the county.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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