The Hamilton County, Tennessee prayer dispute has taken yet another twist with a Jewish rabbi's withdrawal from the list of scheduled County Commission prayer leaders. The rabbi's withdrawal leaves only one non-Christian--a ULC minister--on the Commission's list of prayer leaders for the next six months. As the courts mull the legality of the prayers, we are forced to ask ourselves: should the Commission be allowed to hold its prayer sessions given the approach it has adopted for selecting prayer leaders?
U.S. District Judge Harry S. Mattice ruled on Wednesday, 29 August that prayers at Commission meetings could continue. Plaintiffs Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones, who argued that the Commission was violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, presented as evidence two Commission meeting prayers invoking Jesus Christ. Judge Mattice concluded that the two prayers alone did not "constitute an impermissible affiliation with religion" on the part of the Commission, but he qualified this conclusion by stating that the Commission had not yet "insulated itself from liability for any future violations." Coleman and Jones's attorney, Robin Flores, has filed an appeal with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. For now, ULC pastor Eddie Bridges will be the sole non-Christian prayer leader on the current schedule.
The Commission's strategy for scheduling prayer sessions should raise a few red flags for nondenominational ordained ministers. After the lawsuit was filed in federal court in June, the Commission hired the Arizona-based legal group Alliance Defending Freedom to author its new selection policy. Commissioners now select prayer leaders on a first-come, first-serve basis by sending out invitations using a mailing list with the addresses of "religious organizations" from the telephone directory, and those deemed "tax-exempt charities" by the Internal Revenue Service. The first problem is that the ADF is a conservative Christian organization with the stated goal of speaking its own version of "Truth" through litigation, which is inherently exclusionary of other religions. The second problem is that it is almost impossible to represent a comprehensive range of religions by selecting addresses of religious organizations from a telephone book in an area dominated by Christian churches. Hence, the Commission's selection policy is inherently prone to bias.
So, how can the Commission avoid this kind of bias? One way is to compile a comprehensive list of different faith groups, including online churches, and invite a representative from each to lead an invocation, giving each group a turn and thereby ensuring religious diversity. This might be difficult to achieve in a predominantly Christian area, however. In such a case, perhaps the Commission should simply do away with prayer sessions altogether and settle with a "moment of silence". Either way, everybody wins, and people like Bridges will no longer remain an "outsider". With any luck, the Court of Appeals will consider similar resolutions if and when it hears the case.
The Universal Life Church Monastery has always strongly defended the strict separation of church and state--at both the national and subnational levels--for the purpose of preserving peace and harmony. Ideally the Hamilton County Commission would find a way to represent every religious (and non-religious) opinion in its prayer sessions, but doing away with prayer altogether might prove a better way of preserving peace--and the average citizen's tax dollars. At the end of the day, it is government's duty to ensure ordained pastors like Bridges are not being marginalized.