Following through on a threat to pursue legal action if Hamilton County commissioners continued offering prayers "in Jesus' name" before meetings, a pair of county residents have become plaintiffs in a lawsuit accusing the commission and their attorney of violating their First Amendment rights.
The complaint, filed on behalf of Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones by attorney Robin Flores, specifically says commissioners violated their rights "guaranteed by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution." The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court, and the plaintiffs are requesting preliminary injunctive relief and the awarding of their attorney fees and expenses.
"The acts and omissions of the defendants in the prayer practice stated herein are a blatant endorsement by the government of the Christian religion that any reasonable person would see as an endorsement of the Christian religion to the exclusion of all other religions," the complaint reads. "The acts and omissions of the defendants in the prayer practice stated herein have no secular purpose."
Controversy regarding the commission's decision to pray began last month when an attorney from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to "promote the constitutional separation of church and state," sent a letter to commissioners and called on them to cease their prayers. Making no mention of the letter or recent public comments by Coleman and Jones in a previous commission meeting, the group has continued its prayers.
Commissioner Mitch McClure, who is also the pastor of Middle Valley Church of God in Hixson, said the group had been advised by County Attorney Rheubin Taylor not to comment on the matter because of its legal nature.
It is not the first time county officials have been challenged for their recognition of religion, particularly Christianity, in Hamilton County. In 2002, a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union resulted in the county being ordered to remove displays of the Ten Commandments from court buildings.