Atheist Who Wants to Deliver City Council’s Invocation Gets Rejection Letter Because He’s Not Part of a Congregation

For a while now, I’ve been writing about the Christian prayers recited at meetings of the Hamilton County Commissioners (in Tennessee):

Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones filed a lawsuit against them and the case is still being decided, but in the meantime, Coleman has been trying to deliver one of the invocations:

Brandon Jones (left) and Tommy Coleman (Dan Henry – Chattanooga Times Free Press)

He’s been asking for months but the County keeps saying no because he’s not affiliated with any church (as if we needed more proof of their discrimination in action).

This week, Tommy received an official letter (PDF) from the county’s Legislative Administrator Chris Hixson explaining why he’s not allowed to speak:

… the County will add any minister or representative of a congregation/assembly that meets the following qualifications to the “congregations list”:

1) The minister or representative in a congregation/assembly…

2) The congregation/assembly has an established presence in Hamilton County…

3) The congregation/assembly must qualify for tax exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC)…

No qualifying congregation/assembly will be excluded from the “congregations list” based on the religious perspectives of the organization, even religious perspectives that do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God.

In essence, atheists are totally allowed to deliver the invocation… as long as they’re part of a tax exempt church. Which Coleman isn’t.

It’s possible Coleman could qualify if he belonged to a Unitarian Universalist church or even a non-profit atheist group… But, as far as I can tell, there aren’t any in Hamilton County, Tennessee. Which makes it very easy for the Commissioners to pass rules like this designed to promote Christianity as the expense of non-Christians.

It’s the same reason many public high schools like to put a graduation prayer up for a vote by the students — they know Christians are in the majority so they’ll get their way without getting their hands dirty in the process.

It shouldn’t have to come to this. Coleman is right to challenge the invocation prayer. The fact that he’s unable to deliver an invocation because he’s not part of an established church in the area is all the more reason he and Jones should win their case.

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.

  • Bert Russell

    Before, they were in the frying pan. Now, they’ve jumped out of it and right into the fire. This is a very dumb move on their part. It only strengthens this man’s case against them.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Laws are for the heathens. When you follow the sick Fuck that is the christianist god, you’re above such petty things.

  • C Peterson

    This government body just keeps digging itself in deeper and deeper. Given its behavior, it will be very difficult for any court to uphold its prayer policies.

  • Rain

    Why are they all looking down at their shoes? Did someone track in some kitty litter or something?

  • observer

    But of course, it’s God’s laws that make you a moral person*, not man’s laws.

    *By “moral person”, I mean someone who’s going to heaven and not hell.

  • observer

    Hell, why don’t they just put up a sign saying “No Atheists Allowed”.

  • Darrell Ross

    I wonder if all others who have given invocations qualify on their list?

    Moving the goal-posts FTL.

  • Darrell Ross

    I found this interesting:

    In this one it reads “Mr. Eddie Bridges, from Universal Life Church, asked that a moment of silence be observed for the invocation.”

    To become ordained as a minister with the ULC, all you have to do is talk to them once. I requested information once about 12 years ago; I didn’t ask for any ordaining or anything… and they ordained me and sent me a “mini clergy package”. It was quite amusing.

    I could not find mention of a ULC assembly anywhere within Hamilton County.

  • tubi

    Wouldn’t them asking for and getting ordination from ULC (or similar) be sufficient, though? If Coleman, say, gets ordained and then Jones comes over to his house once a week to play Call of Duty, doesn’t that “establish” a “presence” in Hamilton County? At the very least it would force the council to define “established” for the purposes of the rule. And then if a new Baptist church opens up next month, would a time restriction in the rule preclude the pastor of that church from giving an invocation as well?