In Hamilton County, Tennessee

FFRF objects to board's exclusively Christian prayer

What's the purpose of invoking Jesus' name before discussing whether to raise sewer and water rates or if Joe Blow qualifies for a variance to the zoning code?

In a May 21 letter to the Hamilton County Commission in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Freedom From Religion Foundation points out that the commission really has no business bringing a religious figure into the secular halls of government.

A local complainant alerted FFRF, a national state-church watchdog, to the fact that prayers opening commission meetings are exclusively Christian and that every prayer in 2012 has included "in Jesus' name" or a variation thereof.

"The prayers currently invoked at commission meetings impermissibly advance Christianity and lead a reasonable observer to believe that the commission is endorsing not only religion over nonreligion, but also Christianity over other faiths," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.

"This practice inappropriately alienates non-Christians and nonbelievers. Their efforts to participate in public meetings are adversely affected by these types of prayers, which turn nonbelievers and non-Christians into political outsiders of their own community and government."

The letter cites legal precedents, along with aspects of court rulings that are commonly misunderstood by local governments.

"The prayers here flagrantly exceed the constraints of the 1983 Supreme Court decision, Marsh v. Chambers, which carved out a narrow exception to the Establishment Clause for legislative prayer as a nod to history and custom," Elliott noted.

"The Marsh exception was confined to a situation involving a nonsectarian, nondenominational prayer, led by an officiant who had not been selected based upon any impermissible religious motive, and which was addressed to the body of legislators present, and to no one else."

In January 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in a North Carolina case in which Forsyth County's prayers to Jesus were found to be unconstitutional.

Elliott reminded Hamilton County commissioners that the U.S. was the first nation to adopt a secular constitution, investing sovereignty in “We the People,” not a divine entity. "Significantly, there was no prayer during the Constitutional Convention. Surely if the founders did not need prayer to write the document that founded our nation, the commission can successfully conduct its business without prayer as well."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

 

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