Judge Refuses to Halt Prayer at Government Meetings In Tennessee

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has denied a request to halt prayers at commission meetings in Hamilton County, Tennessee, arguing that the prayer policy is constitutional.

Friday's decision on behalf of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati is in response to a 2012 lawsuit filed by Hamilton County residents Brandon Jones and Thomas Coleman, who contested the voluntary, citizen-led prayers held before commission meetings.

In June 2012, Jones and Coleman, members of the local Chattanooga Freethought Association, filed a lawsuit against Hamilton County, alleging that the tradition of having prayers said before commission meetings violated the Constitution's Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because the majority of prayers referenced Jesus, and therefore were predominately Christian.

Coleman and Jones requested that the commission cease the prayer practice immediately, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation also issued a letter to the commission arguing that the prayers were unconstitutional.

"The constitutional rights of citizens to participate in government meetings, including the Commission's meetings, should not be predicated upon being subjected to Christian-based, or even non-denominational prayer," the FFRF wrote in its letter to the county's commissioners in May 2012.

"By hosting prayers, which show inevitably show a preference for Christianity, the Commission is illegally and inappropriately imposing its religious beliefs on the citizens of Hamilton County who attend these meetings for public business," the FFRF argued.

Following the filing of the lawsuit, the commission sought to alter its policy regarding prayer in an attempt to be more inclusive of other faiths and to assert that the commission in no way endorsed religion.

"Any invocation that may be offered before the official start of the Commission meeting shall be the voluntary offering of a private citizen, to and for the benefit of the Commission," the new prayer policy read.

"The views or beliefs expressed by the invocation speaker have not been previously reviewed or approved by the Commission and do not necessarily represent the religious beliefs or views of the Commission in part or as a whole. No member of the community is required to attend or participate in the invocation and such decision will have no impact on their right to actively participate in the business of the Commission," the policy, which served as a disclaimer on the commission's published schedule of events, added.

Then, U.S. District Court Judge Harry Mattice ruled that the county's prayer policy did not violate the constitution's Establishment clause, writing in his ruling that the prayer policy was "all-inclusive" in that it contemplates invocations from all religions.

In a 21-page opinion released Friday, Judge Avern Cohn of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the previous ruling of Judge Mattice, thus refusing to grant an injunction to Coleman and Jones which would have halted the prayer practice.

"The Commission's prayer policy is constitutional on its face and an as-applied challenge requires further fact-development on remand," Cohn wrote.

"Here, the Policy is facially constitutional. The Policy aims to respect the diversity of all religious groups, and it does not seek to advance one faith or belief over another. The Policy is similar to other policies that have been recognized as facially neutral by our sister circuits," Cohn added.

Bryan Beauman, an attorney for the county commission, told The Asssociated Press Friday's ruling is notable because it rejected the argument that all prayer in government meetings is impermissible.

"The court rejected that, as other courts have done," Beauman told AP. 

"The tradition of prayer before meetings dates back to our country's founding," the attorney added.

While the commision's prayer policy will remain in effect, the case will continue to be reviewed in district court.  

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