Courtroom interior_newWritten by Don Byrd

A federal judge in Tennessee yesterday upheld a Hamilton County, Tennessee policy allowing invocations at county commission meetings to be delivered only by area clergy. The policy specifies that invocation speakers must be drawn from a list of “all the religious congregations with an established presence in Hamilton County,” determined by consulting the Yellow Pages.

The plaintiff challenging the policy argued that allowing only clergy from established congregations violates the constitutional requirement that government remain neutral in matters of religion. Thus, disallowing unaffiliated individuals, the argument goes, is improperly discriminatory under the religious freedom guarantees of the First Amendment.

The court rejected that argument. Here is a snippet from the opinion (via Religion Clause) (citations removed):

Implicit in the body of federal case law on legislative prayer – which all repeatedly emphasize that legislative prayer is somehow different than other Establishment Clause cases – is the understanding the government may favor religion over nonreligion in this narrow circumstance. Prayer, by its very definition, is religious in nature. Thus, while legislative bodies cannot intentionally discriminate against particular faith systems, they can require that invocation givers have some religious credentials. Indeed, the Sixth Circuit has already determined as much in this very case, noting that the County had an interest in “establish[ing] basic criteria for selecting religious groups to participate in the prayer invocations . . . [in order to] ensure that speakers are members of bonafide religious organizations, as opposed to commercial entities or other groups with missions completely unrelated to the Commission’s practice of solemnizing its meetings with an invocation.”

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. 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 relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which a similar policy was at issue. You can see the Baptist Joint Committee’s resource page on that case here.