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VOL. 37 | NO. 29 | Friday, July 19, 2013

6th Circuit won't stop prayers before meetings

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NASHVILLE (AP) - A federal appeals court won't halt prayers before Hamilton County Commission meetings, at least for the time being.

Brandon Jones and Tommy Coleman filed suit in June last year, claiming Hamilton County's prayers often invoke Jesus' name and promote Christianity in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Coleman has testified that the prayers make him feel, "excluded, unwelcome, out of place" at the meetings.

In July 2012, a month after the lawsuit was filed, the commission adopted a policy that attempts to be more inclusive of other faiths by offering the opportunity to give the invocation to all of the religious leaders in the community. The policy also asks those religious leaders not to use the opportunity to convert others to their faiths or to disparage other faiths.

On Friday, a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati declined to put a temporary halt to the praye rs while the case is being decided in district court. The panel ruled that Hamilton County's written prayer policy is constitutional on its face because it "aims to respect the diversity of all religious groups."

However, the policy could still be ruled unconstitutional if the record shows the actual prayers spoken before the commission's meeting promote Christianity over other faiths.

Robin Flores, the attorney for Jones and Coleman, said he thinks the proof will show that the policy is unconstitutional. Flores said that every meeting since the policy was adopted has featured a Christian prayer.

"They've done nothing different since they put this policy in place," he said. "They've actually made it worse."

An attorney for the county did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Friday.

The Kentucky League of Cities filed a brief in the case urging the court to deny the injunction. League attorney Larry Crain on Friday called the 6th Circu it ruling "a step in the right direction."

The League intervened in the case because 6th Circuit decisions affect Kentucky municipalities. Crain had urged the court to take the opportunity to provide clear guidance for municipalities developing policies on prayers before meetings.

"A clearly articulated test would reduce the likelihood of exposure of municipalities to costly and often protracted litigation," he argued.

The 6th Circuit panel declined to do that, but the U.S. Supreme Court might. Flores said the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a very similar case from another circuit. He hopes that ruling will resolve the issue.