The simmering dispute between Hamilton County commissioners who see nothing wrong with opening every commission meeting with an invocation that invariably includes an appeal “in Jesus’ name” and those who oppose the practice continued last week. There were signs, however, that the debate about the legality and appropriateness of such prayers might be moving toward some sort of resolution — but no indications that such a resolution is imminent.
Early Thursday morning, a U.S. district court judge here ordered a July 26 hearing to consider whether to grant a preliminary injunction to stop the prayers until he can rule on a lawsuit that challenges the legality of such invocations at commission meetings. Yet later that morning, the commission began its meeting as it has done for years: With a prayer intoned by a clergyman who invoked the name of Jesus and who, in the view of some in attendance, seemed to chastise those opposed to religion-specific prayers at commission meetings.
In his invocation, Calvin Nunley of Christ Family Church in Soddy-Daisy referred to “perilous times ... a time when people would be unthankful, unholy and ungrateful ... when men and women would choose to go their own way and ignore what is right.” It’s easy to see why some individuals in attendance were offended. They understandably believed the pastor’s words implied they were wicked.
If there was any doubt about which side of the issue the pastor stood, he erased it by saying, “So father, I thank you Lord, for our leaders. ... I thank you for the courage that they have shown in this meeting to allow prayer to be made at the beginning of this meeting.” After he finished, commissioners gave Nunley a clock, the traditional gift to those who offer the invocation.
Tommy Coleman, one of the plaintiffs in the suit against the commissioners and County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, understood both the meaning and intent of the pastor’s words.
“You [the commission] are an obstinate and exclusionary government body. Not only did you bring the minister in here to attack us, but you rewarded him for it.” There’s no way to prove the first of Coleman’s sentiments, but the second is irrefutable.
The commission’s actions indicate unqualified support for public, religion-specific prayer — even in the face of court rulings that government can not endorse prayers for a specific religion, and the knowledge that each commission district includes adherents of many beliefs. There is a sign, though, that commission practices might be changing.
The commission’s legal committee has drafted a new policy for selecting invocation speakers. It would create a countywide database of clergy and use it to issue a blanket invitation to provide a prayer at a commission meeting. Those responding positively would be taken on a first-come, first-serve basis. If the program is implemented, it would be a tangible response to the current controversy..
It is likely that a wide array of clergy would respond positively to the invitation. That, in turn, should lead to more ecumenical and more inclusive prayers that reflect the county’s increasingly diverse population. That might be a viable way to avoid endorsement of a specific religion through public prayer, but it is not the most satisfactory.
The best way to resolve the issue is to eliminate all prayer at commission meetings. Alternatively, commissioners could ask for a moment of silence when all could pray — or not — as they chose. That would honor the desire to pray as well as the equally acceptable belief that prayer — and certainly religion-specific prayer — has no place at a public meeting.
Commissioners, so far, have failed to acknowledge that religious freedom does not mean imposing one’s own beliefs on others. Until they do, the acrimonious debate about government endorsed prayer here will consume time and money that should be spent on other issues.