Attorneys for Hamilton County commissioners and two citizens who filed a lawsuit against the group for allowing prayers offered "in Jesus' name" to continue at meetings are set to face off in court, as a federal judge rules over a hearing in which a preliminary injunction against the commission's ability to continue prayers will be considered.
The plaintiffs in the case, Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones, sued commissioners last month for violating their First Amendment rights by allegedly making a "blatant endorsement by the government of the Christian religion" during invocations. Responding to the lawsuit, commissioners unanimously adopted a new seven-page invocation policy on July 3, stating that ministers would still be allowed to deliver invocations on a first-come-first-served basis.
Briefings filed by attorneys for both sides reveal strategies for the groups as they prepare to meet in U.S. Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice's courtroom at 9 a.m. Thursday.
The attorney representing commissioners, Stephen Duggins, cited several court cases to suggest that the U.S. Supreme Court has already upheld legislative prayers on several occasions and suggested the injunction be denied.
"The Supreme Court has already held that the legislative prayers are constitutional," the July 19 briefing says. "It has also warned that the government should not be involved in regulating the content of prayers, since that exercise itself may violate the Constitution. Plaintiff's challenge is limited to a facial attack on a policy that has been approved by many courts."
Robin Flores, the attorney representing Coleman and Jones, wrote in a July 22 briefing that by allowing prayers to continue in the face of litigation, commissioners were willfully advancing religion. Flores indicated he would present the judge with recorded footage of prayers offered in recent meetings.
"The impact upon the plaintiffs, and all other nonbelievers, is striking," it reads. "As will be shown at the hearing of this matter on July 26, plaintiffs will proffer a set of videos that show lengthy prayers riddled with the invocation of the Christian deity, and at one meeting, a recitation of the Lord's Prayer wherein the entirety of the commission and all other persons (with the exceptions of the plaintiffs and their supporters), break into spontaneous prayer. Any reasonable observer could well believe the meeting was a church service and nothing more."
It is not the first time the group has been summoned to appear in a court over a matter pertaining to religion. In 2002, an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit resulted in the county being ordered to remove displays of the Ten Commandments from court buildings.
Hamilton County commissioners are scheduled to meet for an agenda session Thursday while the hearing takes place.