Prayers can continue before Hamilton County Commission meetings—at least for now.
Wednesday morning, U.S. Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice denied a motion for a preliminary injunction that would have halted prayers at commission meetings while litigation against the group is considered.
The injunction, filed by plaintiffs Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones, came on the heels of a federal lawsuit filed by the duo against commissioners in June. Coleman and Jones accused the group of violating their First Amendment rights by continuing to allow prayers "in Jesus' name" to be given during their weekly period for invocations.
In the thorough, 37-page ruling, Mattice outlined the process by which the complaint had been brought against commissioners, up to the point at which the grounds for injunction had been debated in his courtroom by attorneys for both sides last month. Despite describing certain claims of the plaintiffs as "not ripe," the judge said his ruling did not render moot any pending litigation against commissioners regarding the practice of prayer before or after a newly adopted policy.
"It is not the role of this court, or of any other court, to craft a constitutionally acceptable policy concerning legislative prayer at Hamilton County Commission meetings," the ruling reads. "That responsibility rests—as it should—solely with the commission, which is comprised of the elected representatives of the people of Hamilton County."
Mattice then outlined options available to the commissioners by which a prayer policy could be crafted. The group, which adopted a new invocation policy July 3, fell under a category described by the judge as one that authorizes "some denominational prayer while taking care to ensure that its public recitation does not proselytize listeners, advance one religion or disparage another, or otherwise affiliate the government with any specific faith."
"[The commission] is entirely within its rights to do so," he wrote. "However, in so choosing, it has assumed—on its own behalf and on the behalf of the citizens and taxpayers of Hamilton County—the responsibility of ensuring that its policy is implemented in a manner that respects both the rights of its citizens and the commands of the First Amendment. Whether it will actually effect its policy in such a fashion has yet to be seen."
Mattice ordered both parties to return to his courtroom on Oct. 2 for scheduling purposes.
The judge relied heavily on a number of court cases in the crafting of his ruling, particularly the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers, which he described as "the first and only opinion in which the Supreme Court has squarely addressed the issue of legislative prayer." Mattice wrote the county's reading of the case, in which government funding for chaplains was found to be constitutional, was "strained."
"Because there is no meaningful record of the policy's application, the court is unable to gauge the likely success of plaintiff's constitutional claim, and a preliminary injunction cannot issue," he wrote. "Nevertheless, this litigation is not over, and eventually, a significant record will develop."
Responding to the ruling, Coleman said he and Jones would plan to have their attorney, Robin Flores, file an appeal for the injunction. Coleman said that despite his having not read the entirety of Mattice's ruling, he anticipated an outcome of continuing prayers at County Commission meetings would only strengthen his and Jones' case against the group.
"If we don't get the injunction, the case is just going to be stronger," Coleman said. "[The commission] is going to continue sectarian prayers and practices that are not permissible to Supreme Court and other bodies."