I’ve decided I want to collect as much information on the Hamilton County, TN prayer dispute in one place as possible. So, here’s what I have from the start to present. It seems like it will be generally handy moving forward to have it all compiled into a single post. Let me know if I’m missing anything.
In late May 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the Hamilton County, TN Commission (at the behest of locals) in regards to the conducting of prayers during the Commission’s meetings.
To no one’s particular surprise, the commission decided to wholly ignore both the FFRF’s letter and the pleadings of local citizens to replace the explicitly Christian prayers with a unarguably ecumenical moment of silence. Video More Video
The next week, a lawsuit was filed against the commission in order to have the prayers removed from the commission’s official proceedings. The plaintiffs then held a small rally in support of their cause and began silently protesting at commission prayers while dominating the comment phase of the meetings with impassioned complaints regarding the continuation of the prayers.
The following week, an injunction was filed to suspend the commission prayers until the case could be heard. On June 28th, a judge scheduled a hearing for the injunction. On the very same day, a County Commission meeting featured a particularly controversial prayer by a local church leader who likened coming times of “prayerlessness” to “lawlessness”.
The preacher was later in the meeting given an award for his service to the greater community. At the same time, the conservative Christian group known as the Alliance Defense Fund offered their legal services to the Commission pro bono.
In early July, the Commission voted to adopt a new prayer policy that would allow for the creation of a database of local clergy that would be treated on a first come, first serve basis for official commission prayers. The policy ultimately served to significantly raise tensions on both side of the looming lawsuit.
Just a matter of days ago, the most recent County Commission meeting saw SOCAS supporters removed from the proceedings by security (one for speaking beyond his allotted time constraints and making controversial statements; the other [a plaintiff in the lawsuit] for no specified reason). Following the meeting, a local pro-prayer supporter and infamous quasi-celebrity June Griffin intercepted and chastised the two ejected SOCAS supporters in front of local media for allegedly wasting the commission’s time.
I think that is a pretty decent tl;dr of the whole epic as it has proceeded thus far. In short, this Hamilton Co. ordeal of the last few months has been one of the least covered atheism-related drama pits of inanity and insanity that I have ever seen.
At SSAcon this past weekend, Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) spoke on the story of Nicole Smalkowski, who refrained from joining in the lord’s prayer traditionally spoken following her High School basketball games, and faced intense resistance and harassment for her decision. Her story is from before the rise of the atheist blogosphere and the dramatic growth of the atheist movement in the past few years.
Hemant stated in his talk that this wouldn’t happen nowadays, in that things like what happened to Nicole don’t just fall under the radar now like they did then. I’d really like to agree with that statement. Recent cases such as Jessica Ahlquist’s, Max Nielson’s, and Damon Fowler’s have received massive amounts of support from the atheism community. That’s fantastic news and plenty cause for optimism. However, I’ve also seen stories like the Hamilton Co. prayer issue go almost entirely uncovered outside of the typically biased local media. This past April when Florence, AL atheists stood up to a mad Tea Party pro-prayer rally comes immediately to mind.
My point is, there’s still plenty that is going under the radar that I’ve personally seen (and my experience is almost exclusively in the student realm). The blogosphere is neither omniscient nor omnipresent, as I’m sure some may think it is. The bloggers only know and cover what they are told about and aware of. I can’t emphasize this point enough: if you have something that you think may even possibly be a relevant story, poke them with your virtual sticks. The bloggers rarely bite in my experience.
So here’s what I’m going to do.
Here are a few publicly accessible email addresses and contact pages of atheism blogs that are operated by past/present secular student leaders. If you are fighting a legal battle or otherwise have a relevant story, poke them with your mighty digital sticks of righteousness. See that your story is heard.
JT Eberhard - wwjtd21[at]gmail[dot]com
Last but not least, don’t hesitate to contact the SSA with student-related issues. If we can’t do something to help you ourselves, we’ll point you in the direction of someone who can.
In conclusion, here’s a picture of Happy Atom MS Painted onto the Chattanooga Choo Choo. July 26th is the hearing for the prayer injunction for the Hamilton Co. Commission meetings. I’m planning on being there.