The commission chamber fell silent Thursday morning as Calvin Nunley, pastor of Christ Family Church in Soddy-Daisy, approached the podium.
"Would you bow your heads, please?" Nunley said.
The pastor then delivered a two-minute prayer and invoked the name of Jesus three times. Nunley praised God for bestowing another day of life, for the forgiveness of sins and for the body of elected officials seated before him. And then the pastor focused his prayer on a controversy that has drawn attention from across the region and the nation to the commission this month—the act of prayer itself.
"Lord, it is a tough day, but your word has told us that this day would come," the pastor said. "That in the last days, prayer-less times would come. That it would be a time when people would be unthankful, unholy and ungrateful. It would also be a time of lawlessness, when men and women would choose to go their own way and ignore what is right."
Seated directly behind the pastor, a small group of citizens sat in their seats, heads unbowed. Among the group was Tommy Coleman, a county resident who, along with Brandon Jones, accused the body earlier this month of disregarding their First Amendment rights and threatened to file a federal lawsuit.
Coleman and Jones made good on their claim two weeks ago and became plaintiffs in a legal dispute stating that commissioners were blatantly endorsing the Christian faith by allowing prayers to be offered at weekly meetings in the name of Jesus Christ.
Following Nunley's prayer, Commissioner Mitch McClure awarded him with a commemorative plaque.
"We appreciate you being here," he said. "Here's a little memento of our appreciation of you being here and the service you have given to the community."
Later on Thursday, the commission retreated into a private legal meeting to discuss their next move after the lawsuit's filing. When the group emerged, County Attorney Rheubin Taylor addressed the matter publicly for the first time—and suggested commissioners vote on a new policy that would establish guidelines for future invocations.
"After 34 years of the present structure, it seems like a lot of things have developed in the last year that have required us to implement a policy in writing so that it would be clear as to the commission's intent and practice," Taylor said. "We have presented to you, each of you, a proposed policy regarding the opening of your meetings with prayer and would ask that you consider that at your meeting next week."
Under the policy, a "congregations list" would be formed of ministers throughout the county who would be eligible to deliver prayers during commission invocations on a first-come-first-served basis. The policy states that commissioners would "make every reasonable effort" to ensure that a variety of representatives from the community would be scheduled to deliver remarks before meetings.
Commissioner Jim Fields said the policy was drafted to incorporate the current status of constitutional law regarding the issue and added that it was heavily reliant on the 1983 Supreme Court case Marsh v. Chambers, in which the court ruled 6-3 that funding for government chaplains and prayers before legislative sessions were not in violation of the Constitution because of the "unique history" of the United States.
But Coleman, who called the commission an "obstinate and exclusionary government body" during the regular time for public comment Thursday, later said he and Jones had no plans to drop their lawsuit as a result of the newly suggested policy.
"They're framing this as being inclusive for everyone," Coleman said. "But after what we've seen, I'm not sure minority faiths would even feel included in asking their reverends and ministers to come out and give a prayer … This is just a thinly veiled attempt to avert the lawsuit that has already been filed. A moment of silence would be the best thing to do."
On Wednesday, a federal judge ordered parties involved with the lawsuit to appear at a hearing scheduled for July 26, at which a motion for a preliminary injunction against the commission's ability to continue prayers will be considered. It is not the first time the group has been summoned to 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.
Taylor also announced Thursday that attorneys affiliated with the Alliance Defense Fund, a "legal alliance" dedicated to defending First Amendment rights, would represent the commission at no charge.
Several residents spoke out both in favor and against the commission's continued allowance of prayers, even in the face of litigation. Floyd Shadrick, a resident of East Brainerd, urged the group to "stand strong" and continue allowing prayers to be offered.
"I have had all the rights taken away from me that I intend to have," Shadrick said. "I believe strongly in prayer … God has blessed me and my family. I have the opportunity to and the privilege to pay $8,000 a year in Hamilton County taxes. I'm asking you commissioners to spend every dime of that money to fight this lawsuit. I'm asking you to stand strong and fight this lawsuit. I'm asking you to stand like Daniel and pray three times a day by the wind, so all the world will know that you're praying—and while you're praying, pray in Jesus' name."
Steven Disbrow, a Hixson resident, advised the commission to consider the costs of a legal battle for which losing would be an "inevitable outcome." Disbrow said the practice of prayer was a threat to the "overall economic progress" Hamilton County had experienced in the past decade and added that he was greatly offended by the prayer Nunley offered.
"I was offended beyond belief by the prayer that was given today, that myself, my friends and my children were singled out by the pastor as 'lawless' and 'wicked,'" Disbrow said. "And then, not one of you spoke up to address that, but you gave him a reward … I'm not here to question your patriotism or your knowledge of the Constitution or your willingness to represent all of your constituents fairly and equally. These are questions that you have already answered by your actions. I'm here today to find out what you value more—your piousness or your country, your county and your constituents."
The commission will likely vote on the prayer policy during their meeting next Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.
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