Updated: No ruling on preliminary injunction in Hamilton County Commission prayer dispute

Hamilton County commissioners bow their heads during a recent prayer. (Photo: Staff)

Authored By James Harrison

It will be at least two weeks before a federal judge rules on a preliminary injunction filed against the Hamilton County Commission’s ability to allow prayers “in Jesus’ name” to continue at meetings. 

Thursday morning, U.S. Judge Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice told defendants and plaintiffs in the case he would allow additional evidence to be submitted by either side before a deadline of Aug. 8, along with optional briefings up to 15 pages long. Mattice then said upon his review he would rule “as soon as possible” on whether prayers could continue as a lawsuit is considered. 

“The community deserves an answer on this,” he said.

The judge’s decision came more than three hours after a hearing involving attorneys for plaintiffs Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones and defendants Hamilton County commissioners began. It was the first meeting in court for the parties, which are embroiled in a federal lawsuit filed by Coleman and Jones last month. The lawsuit accused commissioners of violating First Amendment rights by allowing prayers in meetings.

Wearing suits, Coleman and Jones sat in the center of the courtroom as commissioners, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and County Attorney Rheubin Taylor looked on from behind. Commissioner Mitch McClure was the only commissioner absent from the hearing-which was attended by approximately 50 additional citizens.

Opening the hearing, Mattice emphasized it’s being limited to the discussion of the preliminary injunction. 

“This is a highly emotional issue,” he said. “This is about as emotional as it gets in our nation.”

Robin Flores, attorney for Coleman and Jones, began by stating that his intention was to “stop the harm” being continually received by Coleman and Jones during prayers and to convince Mattice to put an end to prayers of any kind from being offered at commission meetings. Upon being called to the stand, laughter scattered across the courtroom when Coleman was sworn in by saying “so help me God.”

“That’s just standard,” Mattice said, asking the audience to refrain. “Of course, we’re not going to draw any inferences.”

Coleman was examined and cross-examined by attorneys for nearly two hours. During his direct examination by Flores, Coleman said he began attending meetings out of general interest “because they were open.” Flores then asked Coleman to describe every prayer offered during meetings he attended, often supplementing Coleman’s testimony with videos he had taken from his seat at meetings. 

Referencing a prayer given on June 28 by Calvin Nunley, pastor of Christ Family Church in Soddy-Daisy, Coleman said he felt “personally attacked” when reference was made to “unthankful, unholy and ungrateful” people during his prayer-despite never mentioning him by name. 

“It was clear he was there to attack us,” Coleman said, adding that the remarks, in addition to other prayers, made him feel “excluded, unwelcome and extremely out of place.”

Stephen Duggins, attorney for the commission, then cross-examined Coleman, probing the plaintiff further as to his initial motivation for beginning to attend County Commission meetings last month. 

“You never went before,” Duggins suggested. 

Coleman answered that he had been generally interested in government and “had no idea” commissioners would be offering a prayer when he attended his first meeting June 6. Adding that he “did not know” if he would object, Coleman did say he came prepared to speak out against the practice of prayer and in favor of a moment of silence-which he and Jones both did, reading prepared statements.

Duggins then asked Coleman a series of questions centering on whether he would object to variations of prayers, moments of silence or short solemnizing messages-as outlined in a new policy on invocations that was adopted by commissioners on July 3. After saying he would be offended by the inclusion of the phrase “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence,” Duggins asked Coleman if his opinion would change upon learning the language was taken directly from the Declaration of Independence. 

“A moment of silence is absolutely the only truly all-inclusive policy,” Coleman said, later adding that the prospect of offering a prayer during the commission’s weekly period for public comment would not offend him.

Jones then took the stand, giving short testimony that fell in line with Coleman’s. Jones said that of the three commission meetings he had attended since June, he felt excluded every time as prayers were made.

Flores then called Amira Laham to the stand. Laham, a Muslim, was examined and cross-examined on her experience of attending 10 commission meetings in the past year at which prayers were offered. 

Laham said she observed the prayers becoming “more aggressive” and added that she would not feel comfortable offering a Muslim prayer in the commission chamber if given the opportunity.

“I felt ostracized,” she said. “When a prayer is given, I think that people should feel closer to God-not the way that I felt.”

The only other witness called to testify during the hearing was Chris Hixson, legislative administrator for the commission. Hixson was asked and spoke about her responsibility of creating a “congregations list” of local religious leaders who would be invited to deliver invocations on a first-come-first-served basis under the commission’s newly adopted invocation policy. 

Hixson said she primarily used the phone book as her guide for compiling the list of the 560 congregations across Hamilton County, which was predominantly Christian-but also included listings of various Jewish, Universalist and Islamic institutions.

“We had immediate responses,” she said. 

Flores then cross-examined Hixson and pointed to a requirement that in order to be eligible, organizations must have tax-exempt status with the IRS. He also asked Hixson if any “Wiccans, covens or Satanists” had been invited to participate in invocations at the County Commission. 

“I’m not aware of any,” Hixson said. “I just went by the Yellow Book.”

In his closing remarks, Mattice said he thought the hearing needed to be ruled on “as quickly as we can.”

Following the hearing, commissioners returned to the Hamilton County Courthouse to reconvene their weekly meeting, which had been scheduled to begin at 9:30 that morning. Minutes after Mattice delayed his decision regarding the injunction, a pastor led the group in an invocation and closed his prayer “in Jesus’ name.”