Knox County Commission Plans to Say Yes to Pre-Meeting Prayers

With all the legal problems city councils are having over their invocation prayers, the Knox County Commission in Tennessee is taking a step today… in the wrong direction: They’re putting their invocation policy in writing so that it’ll be officially approved.

Knox County Commission Chairman Mike Hammond said now is a good time to “reaffirm (the county’s) policy” although “this is something we’ve been doing for years.”

Commission Vice Chairman Brad Anders agreed.

“The only thing this does is set up rules for what we’re already doing and it makes it legally defensible if we are sued,” he said.

A written policy calling for “open and non-inclusive” prayers has little weight when FFRF has documented plenty of instances (PDF) when the prayers were explicitly Christian in nature:

“Calling upon commissioners and citizens to pray is coercive and beyond the authority of the local government,” the July 3 letter states. “Citizens are compelled to come before you on important civic matters, to seek licenses, permits, to participate in important decisions affecting their livelihood, their property and quality of life. These citizens should not be made to feel offended, excluded, or like political outsiders because the local government they support with their taxes imposes religious ritual at civil government meetings.

It’s not only the atheists pointing out the problems of the prayer. The Knoxville Jewish Alliance sent the Commission a letter, too:

Even though the mainstream Jewish community believes in a just, merciful, and loving God as seen and understood through the lens of the Jewish Bible (sometimes called The Old Testament), it also recognized the prohibitions imposed by the federal and Tennessee Constitutions against government sponsorship and prohibition of religious beliefs and practices.

But, you know, in the minds of the Commissioners, who cares what the Jews think?

The policy would include the following language:

The Knox County Commission hereby approves the following written policy regarding opening invocations before meetings of the Commission of Knox County, Tennessee:

(1) In order to solemnize proceedings of the Knox County Board of Commissioners, it is the policy of the Commission to allow for an invocation or devotional to be offered before its meetings for the benefit of the Commission.

(2) The devotional shall be listed or recognized as an agenda item for the meeting or as part of the public business.

(3) No member or employee of the Commission or any other person in attendance at the meeting shall be required to participate in any devotional that is offered.

(4) The devotional shall be voluntarily delivered by a single Commission member, or his/her designee, scheduled on a rotating basis among all Commission members who voluntarily choose to participate in the rotational list.

(5) The designated Commission member shall deliver the devotional or invocation in his or her capacity as a private citizen, and according to the dictates of his or her own conscience.

(6) No guidelines or limitations shall be issued regarding an invocation’s content, except that the Commission shall request by the language of this policy that no devotional should proselytize or advance any faith, or disparage the religious faith or non-religious views of others.

(7) No Commission member shall be scheduled to offer a devotional at consecutive meetings of the Commission, or at more than two (2) Commission meetings in any calendar year.

(8) No other member(s) of the Commission shall engage in any prior inquiry, review of, or involvement in, the content of any devotional to be offered by the scheduled Commission member.

(9) This policy in not intended, and shall not be implemented or construed in any way, to affiliate the Commission with, nor express the Commission’s preference for, any faith or religious denomination. Rather, this policy is intended to acknowledge and express the Commission’s respect for the diversity of religious denominations and faiths represented and practiced among the citizens of the County of Knox.

Note the weak language.

The Commission members get to choose who delivers the invocation “according to the dictates of his or her own conscience” — another way of saying “If you’re Christian, go ahead and talk about Jesus.

The Commissioners can “request” that proselytization not occur, but, hey, if it happens, not our fault!

At no point do they actually forbid proselytizing sermons. In fact, they say that Commissioners shouldn’t pre-screen invocation speeches — one way to just wash their hands clean of any Christ-y sermons that *happen* to be said.

They’re setting themselves up for a lawsuit. Their intentions don’t matter. The results do. And they’re being watched by groups who are fighting for equality under the eyes of government.

(Thanks to Christina for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Tainda

    Oh glorious porn, please give us plenty of fantasies to get through these trying days.

    Think they would accept that?

  • http://twitter.com/Mandaray Amanda Cales

    Yet one more reason why I am both disgusted and slightly ashamed to live in Knoxville…

  • Rwlawoffice

    Perfectly legal and constitutional policy for invocation prior to a public meeting.  The Supreme Court has held that the content of the prayer is not what is important, it is the context. The FFRF will lose this lawsuit if they choose to bring one.

    • Johnk

      Good to hear that there is still a loophole for freedom out there! I was beginning to think that the anti-religious thought police had found a way to put a stop to any form of free expression of religion in a public place. I am always disgusted and slightly ashamed when someone tries to squash the rights of others, no matter what they are. Saying “Yes” feels better than continually saying “NO.”

      • Lee Miller

        Anyone has the right to pray.  No one’s rights are being squashed.  But when a government body mixes Christian practices into their business, that is clearly inappropriate.  And make no mistake:  this policy is specifically targeted to bring Christian prayer into Commission meetings.  How many Islamic, Hindu, Bahai, Jewish, or other pray-ers are going to be invited?  Formalizing a policy like this simply announces to everyone who isn’t a Christian that they aren’t really part of what’s going on.

        • JohnK

          We agree, and as I said I’m happy that in this case, nobody’s rights are being squashed! 

          It sounds as if they go by the above mentioned policy, they can freely express whatever personal religious beliefs that they want. 

          Make no mistake: Freedom is freedom, I will never be on the side of taking even a smidgeon of it away. It’s always better to err on the liberal side; to say yes more often than no. We don’t want an orwellian society! 

    • Guest

       So saith the paralegal with the 1 year correspondence degree

      • Rwlawoffice

         Too funny.  Not quite though. Practicing lawyer for 26 years with specific experience in this very area of constitutional law.  But if you are aware of caselaw that says I’m wrong I will look at it.

    • Edmond

      Is it really so wrong to ask these people to get to WORK, and save their worship for a more personal time?  They aren’t hired to intone magical incantations on behalf of whichever citizens happen to agree with them.  If that’s what they wanted to do, they should’ve gone into a career in clergy.

    • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

      When Christians are feeling desperate, caught in a corner, they start talking like lawyers. When lawyers are feeling desperate, caught in a corner, they start talking like Christians. 

      • Blacksheep

        and when atheists are feeling desperate, caught in a corner, they call a lawyer!

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          Somehow, that rejoinder just doesn’t warrant a “touche.”

      • Rwlawoffice

        I am both a lawyer and a Christian so in my case that is appropriate.

        • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

          Being both does not make it “appropriate” to switch back and forth only for the sake of expediency and manipulation, rather than using these two ways of thinking in their proper contexts.

        • Piet

           Both are experts in distorting the truth, very appropriate indeed!

  • Birdie1986

    The stated purpose of the invocation is to “solemnize” the proceedings.  This term is used to mean “duly perform (a ceremony, esp. a marriage) or “mark with a formal ceremony.”  Why is an invocation or devotional (both of which have religious meanings) necessary to “solemnize” a government meeting?  Don’t the rules already provide sufficient form and formality to the meeting?  In fact, “invocation” specifically means to call on the assistance of a higher authority or summon a deity or the supernatural, and “devotional” means “of or used in religious worship.”  How is that not establishing a religion?  Even if they don’t call on a SPECIFIC higher authority or deity, they are still performing religious worship for the stated purpose of duly performing the public meeting.  It’s almost worse than if they stuck to a previously established religion because if they are invoking a deity or the supernatural or worshipping some unspecified deity, it’s almost like they are establishing a religion of public meeting deities, which is exactly what the government is not supposed to do (i.e.,  make a law regarding the establishment of a religion).  The context of the prayer is set out right in the rules  and it is unconstitutional.  They are invoking or worshipping a deity for the purpose of “duly performing” a ceremony (the ceremony being the public meeting).  It’s ludicrous.

    • JohnK

      Freedom is harder to manage than a totalitarian state, but let’s keep trying anyway. 

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, orphan

    how many jobs will their prayers create, i wonder? how much increased revenue for the city, to address its economic troubles right now? i’m sure the taxpayers of the city will be happy to know that their representatives are working so hard and doing so much for all of them that is working and creating so much prosperity, that they have the extra free time to celebrate baby jeebus even more than they already do.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Knox County Law Director Joe Jarret, though, said the commission’s current understood policy is “open and non-inclusive,” but that the board should “formalize that into writing.”

    Huh? non-INclusive? is that a typo? Wouldn’t he try to defend this idiotic policy by saying it’s open and non-EXclusive, as in not excluding the non-Christians in the community?

    This sounds like a case of accidental candor. Yes, its “open,” as in open season on the First Amendment, and its non-inclusive, as in not including any citizen who doesn’t go to one of the Commissioners’ churches.

  • born

    Knoxville, white trash USA

  • Keulan

    Let me get this straight… so these idiots admit that they’ve been violating the Constitution for years, and now they want to put that in writing? Yeah, I don’t think they have much chance of winning if this goes to court.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandy-Kokch/100000074576649 Sandy Kokch

    I have a suggestion – much the same one I keep making for when school boards make stupid and obviously illegal decisions to promote creationism or keep up prayer banners.

    The Knox County authorities make each of the board members  who vote for the motion sign a legal document that states that if the matter is taken to court and the County looses, the board members and board members alone will be equally and jointly responsible for payment of the court costs. No taxpayer money will be used, just the board members who voted to pass the motion. And the list of guilty parties must include the County legal advisor who told them it was OK to pass and institute the policy. Its sort of a pragmatic applcation of the legal principle of vicarious liability.

    Start hitting fundy fools hard in their own wallets, rather than the tax payers, and see how many more want to play legal Russian roulette with public funds.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    The picture is like some kind of parody… a bunch of old white guys with a token woman and token black thrown in for “diversity”.

  • Knoxvillain

    How long is the prayer? Probably not more than 3 minutes. Are they on the clock? I doubt they’re paid by the hour. They’re not going to have you arrested for not bowing your head. It’s like when I go to a sporting event and they have some generic invocation to some higher being to try to please everyone. I just don’t participate and I feel fine about it. Also, I think I’d rather be able to hear what they were praying as opposed to not knowing what incantation they may or may not have participated in, in private, before the meeting. If a Jew or Muslim was on the commission and said a prayer the way they wanted to before the meeting, I would not be offended.


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