(CN) – A Tennessee county’s pre-meeting prayer policy is constitutional, but a man’s removal from a county commission session may not have been lawful, a federal judge ruled.
Thomas Coleman III and Brandon James sued Hamilton County, Tenn., in 2012. The county’s prayer policy, adopted in July 2012, is part of the dispute.
The policy allows for an opening prayer before county commission meetings and, as written, it does not give preference to one religion over another, according to the ruling.
Coleman says he wanted to say the opening prayer at a county commission meeting but was not added to the list after informing the county that he did not represent any religious assembly or congregation.
Coleman and Aaron Moyer, who is not a party to the suit, attended one meeting that was open to the public and Moyer decided to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting, the ruling states. A member of the commission allegedly asked Moyer to “wrap it up” after a few minutes because other people were waiting to speak.
After Moyer initially refused to stop speaking but then returned to his seat, a female deputy apparently escorted both Moyer and Coleman out of the room. Coleman can be seen and heard on video saying, “I’m now being forced to leave, and I have done nothing wrong,” according to the ruling.
The lawsuit was actually filed before the incident in which Coleman and Moyer were allegedly asked to leave the county commission meeting, but it was amended following the July 12, 2012 meeting to include civil rights violations.
U.S. District Judge Harry Mattice Jr. dismissed the challenge to the county’s prayer policy, ruling that the policy is constitutional. Coleman and James argued the policy is against the law because it requires the person delivering the prayer be part of an established congregation but the judge upheld the policy both on its face and as applied.
“Plaintiffs have failed to present to the court any evidence or argument that defendant’s prayer policy is implemented in a way that discriminates against particular faith systems, either intentionally or unintentionally,” Mattice wrote. “Their argument that the policy discriminates against each and every individual who is not an eligible member of the clergy affiliated with a bona fide religious assembly simply has no basis under current legislative prayer jurisprudence. The court accordingly finds that defendant’s prayer policy is constitutional as applied, and defendant’s motion for summary judgment as to plaintiffs’ establishment clause claim will be granted.”
The judge also disregarded Coleman and James’ free speech claim because their amended complaint did not sufficiently raise any such allegations. He also dismissed with prejudice an equal protection claim because any challenge to the prayer policy is subject to analysis only under the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
However, Mattice ruled that Coleman’s unlawful seizure claim for being removed from the meeting can proceed to trial.
“Plaintiffs have presented evidence that one or more members of the commission directed the deputy to remove plaintiff Coleman and Moyer from the July 12, 2012 meeting, through gestures and words, including ‘get them out of here.’ Assuming plaintiffs’ facts to be true, a jury could determine that a deliberate decision was made to remove Coleman and Moyer from the commission meeting by a member of the commission,” he wrote.
The judge ended his 26-page opinion by quoting T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” and William Shakespeare’s “MacBeth”.
“And so, like the world, this lawsuit ends not with a bang but with a whimper,” Mattice wrote. “What began as a case with the potential for significant constitutional implications in the area of establishment clause jurisprudence ends as a run-of-the-mill seizure case of little or no precedential significance. Only because there exists an apparent factual dispute concerning the precise events and circumstances which gave rise to the alleged illegal seizure will the competing versions of those events be submitted for trial.”
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