AU Protests Sectarian Prayers Before Tenn. County Commission

The Sevier County, Tenn., Commission must stop preferring the Christian faith over other religious perspectives, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has warned.

In a letter sent to county commissioners Oct. 3, Americans United attorneys said the Constitution requires the Commission to stop reciting the Lord’s Prayer before its meetings and remove a Christian poster from its meeting room.

The poster features the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, an image of Jesus Christ and other items sacred to Christians. Displaying it and allowing the mayor to lead recitations of the Lord’s Prayer constitute clear violations of the First Amendment, the AU letter says.

“There is really no gray area here,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The Sevier County commissioners have singled out one faith for favored government treatment. That’s unconstitutional and unfair.

“This is an increasingly diverse society,” Lynn continued, “and everyone should feel welcome at governmental meetings.”  

The October letter was the second AU missive to the county commission. The first was sent in February 2010, and at that time, the commission declined to alter its activities.

Americans United is following up on its first letter because the case law regarding recitation of the Lord’s Prayer before government meetings is even more defined than it was two years ago.

Thanks to an AU legal victory in Mullin v. Sussex County, the law is now clearer. In that case, a federal judge said pre-meeting recitation of the Lord’s Prayer by a Delaware county board “constitutes government endorsement of the Christian faith.”

AU attorneys say the Constitution must be obeyed and urged county officials to change their policies and stop favoring Christianity.

As for the poster, the letter notes that displaying the words of an unconstitutional prayer on a poster is as problematic as reciting that same prayer before meetings. Such a poster cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny because it emphasizes a religious message and is displayed for religious reasons, asserted AU.

AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan wrote about the poster, “Your display lacks any non-religious components; indeed, every item on the poster is plainly and unequivocally religious. It is, therefore, patently unconstitutional.”

Americans United also reminded Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters and the 25 commissioners that continuing to recite the prayer and display the poster could lead to very costly litigation, noting that two Kentucky counties were recently made to pay nearly $460,000 in attorneys’ fees after losing a legal battle over their Ten Commandments displays.