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Sixth Circuit Upholds Constitutionality of Legislative Prayers
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This week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling of a lower court holding legislative prayers to be constitutional. The Freedom from Religion Foundation had last year complained that citizen-led prayers in Hamilton County, Tennessee were unconstitutional. The FFRF complained that even though the county commissioners invited individuals from different faiths to lead the prayers, a majority of the invocations were in the name of “Jesus,” which to the FFRF made the prayers unconstitutional.

The letter of complaint the FFRF sent to the Hamilton County officials observed, “prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive. Commission members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers’ time … amounting to a governmental endorsement that excludes the 15% of the American population that is nonreligious.”

  
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Members of the local Chattanooga Freethought Association followed up the letter with a lawsuit against the county demanding that prayer routines be suspended.

The lawsuit prompted members of the Hamilton County Commission to adopt an official prayer policy that observed, “The views or beliefs expressed by the invocation speaker … do not necessarily represent the religious beliefs or views of the Commission in part or as a whole. No member of the community is required to attend or participate in the invocation …”

Last year, in August, Judge Harry Mattice of Chattanooga’s U.S. District Court, ultimately decided on merits and arguments and issued a 37-page ruling holding the prayer policy to be acceptable. In his judgment, Mattice observed that the “Establishment Clause is not offended if a legislature formally invokes divine blessings on its official business … There is no evidence that the County seeks to use the prayer opportunity to advance one faith or disparage another …”

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The plaintiffs filed an appeal, against which, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed Mattice’s judgment on the issue.

In its opinion, the Sixth Circuit observed that legislative prayer has been present throughout the history of the United States. The appeals court also elaborated by citing Supreme Court precedents on the matter, and Judge Avern Cohn wrote, “The Senate and House elected their first chaplains in 1789 … As the Supreme Court explaine, ‘[i]t can hardly be thought that in the same week Members of the First Congress voted to appoint and to pay a Chaplain for each House and also voted to approve the draft of the First Amendment’ that ‘the intended the Establishment Clause of the Amendment to forbid what they had just declared acceptable.’”



The plaintiffs will be moving for review.



 

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