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Coleman v. Hamilton County

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee

April 22, 2015


For Brandon Raymond Jones, Thomas Joseph Coleman, III, Plaintiffs: Robin R Flores, LEAD ATTORNEY, Flores Law Office, Chattanooga, TN.

For Hamilton County Government, Ternnessee, Defendant: Brett Harvey, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Alliance Defending Freedom (Arizona), Scottsdale, AZ; Bryan H Beauman, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, Alliance Defending Freedom, Paris, KY; Stephen S Duggins, LEAD ATTORNEY, Law Office of Stephen S. Duggins, Chattanooga, TN.



Before the Court is Defendant Hamilton County, Tennessee's (" Hamilton County" ) Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 83). For the reasons stated herein, the Court will GRANT IN PART and DENY IN PART Defendant's Motion. (Doc. 83). Plaintiffs' claims arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution will be DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE. Plaintiff Coleman's federal and state law claims arising out of his seizure at the July 12, 2012 County Commission Meeting will PROCEED TO TRIAL.


For the purposes of summary judgment, the Court will view the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). However, many facts in this case are undisputed, and certain facts have previously been stipulated to by both parties. ( See Doc. 38; Doc. 84 at 5-6; Doc. 89).

Prayer Policy

Hamilton County is a political subdivision of the State of Tennessee, and the Commission is its elected legislature and final policymaker. (Doc. 38 at 1). The Commission conducts the County's business during its regularly scheduled public meetings. ( Id. ).

On July 3, 2012, the Commission adopted Resolution 712-13, entitled " A Resolution Adopting a Policy Regarding Opening Invocations Before Meetings of the Hamilton County Commission" (" the prayer policy" or " the policy" ).[1] (Doc. 38-1). The resolution is nine pages in length, and it contains approximately five pages of preamble, in which various clauses set forth, inter alia, the Commission's intention to " invoke divine guidance" ; quotes from Supreme Court and federal appellate cases concerning the constitutionality of legislative prayer; and the resolution's goal of adopting a policy that does not " proselytize or advance any particular faith, or show any purposeful preference of one religious view to the exclusion of others." ( Id. at 1-5).

The policy permits " an eligible member of the clergy in Hamilton County, Tennessee," to give an invocation at the opening of Commission meetings. ( Id. at 5). The invocation speakers are drawn from a list of " all the religious congregations with an established presence in Hamilton County," compiled based on local listings for religious institutions found within the Yellow Pages. ( Id. ; Doc. 89-5 at 2-3). Although the substantial majority of the congregations on the list are Christian churches, institutions representing Muslim, Jewish, and Baha'i faiths, as well as others, are also included.[2] (Doc. 38-2; Doc. 89-7 at 8, 12; Doc. 83-1 at 4; Doc. 83-2 at 3). If an institution is not represented on the list, it may request inclusion in writing, with any dispute as to an organization's religious bona fides being resolved by reference to the Internal Revenue Code's guidelines for tax-exempt status.[3] (Doc. 38-1 at 6).

The Commission does not engage in any content review of the invocations, and it places no guidelines on what may be said, except: " [T]he Commission requests that no invocation should proselytize or advance any faith, disparage the religious faith or non-religious views of others, or exceed five minutes in length." (Doc. 38). To that end, the policy dictates the contents of the invitation letter that is mailed to religious leaders. (Doc. 38-1 at 7-8). It states that:

This opportunity is voluntary, and you are free to offer the invocation according to the dictates of your own conscience. However, please try not to exceed no [sic] more than five (5) minutes for your presentation. To maintain a spirit of respect for all, the Commission requests only that the opportunity not be exploited as an effort to convert others to the particular faith of the invocation speaker, nor to disparage any faith or belief different than that of the invocation speaker.

( Id. at 7). Additionally, Commission agendas include the following printed language:

Any invocation that may be offered before the official start of the Commission meeting shall be the voluntary offering of a private citizen, to and for the benefit of the Commission. The views or beliefs expressed by the invocation speaker have not been previously reviewed or approved by the Commission and do not necessarily represent the religious beliefs or views of the Commission in part or as a whole. No member of the community is required to attend or participate in the invocation and such decision will have no impact on their right to actively participate in the business of the Commission.

( Id. at 8) (emphasis original).

Religious leaders notify the Commission of their willingness to offer an invocation via reply letter. ( Id. at 7-8). The policy provides that religious leaders will then be scheduled to give an invocation at upcoming Commission meetings on a " first-come, first-serve basis." ( Id. at 8; Doc. 83-1 at 4; Doc. 83-2 at 4).

Since the adoption of the policy, religious leaders of various congregations -- including Baptist, Lutheran, Church of God, Presbyterian, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist -- have volunteered to be placed on the County's agenda as the invocation speaker. (Doc. 38). The County has granted every request for inclusion on the invocation schedules from representatives of qualified assemblies. (Doc. 83-1 at 5; Doc. 83-2 at 4). Many of the invocation speakers have offered prayers referencing their faith tradition, the majority of which represent Christian traditions. (Doc. 83-1 at 6-7; Doc. 83-2 at 6). None of the speakers, however, has offered an invocation which denigrates minority faiths or nonbelievers, threatens damnation, or preaches conversion to a particular faith. (Doc. 83-1 at 6-7; Doc. 83-2 at 6).

In November 2012, a few months after creation of the congregations list, Plaintiff Coleman requested that he be added to the invitation list and scheduled to deliver an invocation. (Doc. 83-1 at 7-8; Doc. 89-3 at 3-6). The County asked for the name and address of the assembly in order to send an invitation. (Doc. 83-1 at 7-8; Doc. 89-3 at 3-6). Plaintiff replied " I do not represent any religious assembly or congregation . . . I am not a clergyman . . . I have no address to give you . . . [and] I do not have 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status." [4] (Doc. 83-1 at 7-8; Doc. 89-3 at 3-6). There is no dispute that Plaintiff Coleman was never added to the invitation list or scheduled to give an invocation.

July 12, 2012 Commission Meeting[5]

On July 12, 2012, Plaintiff Coleman and Aaron Moyer (who is not a party to this action) attended a Commission meeting that was open to members of the public. (Doc. 89-1 at 1; Doc. 89-3 at 1). According to the Commission, it sets aside 10 minutes for public comments at its meetings, and when multiple persons wish to speak, the Commission will limit individual speakers to 3 minutes in order to hear from a variety of citizens.[6] (Doc. 83-1 at 8-9). Moyer was the second person to speak during the public comments portion of the meeting on July 12, 2012; two other citizens were waiting to speak after Moyer. ( Id. at 9).

After approximately four and a half minutes, Larry Henry, Chairman of the Commission, can be heard on the video informing Moyer that his time was nearly expired and asking Moyer to " wrap it up." [7] ( Id. ; Doc. 89-1 at 1; Doc. 89-3 at 1). Moyer can be heard on the video continuing to speak for approximately a minute and a half, at which point Henry said " Sir, I am going to have to ask you to wrap it up. We need to move on. We've got two more." Moyer did not stop, however, but continued speaking. Henry asked Moyer to sit down. When Moyer refused to sit down and raised his voice, Henry can be heard asking security to " escort this gentleman to his seat."

After Moyer returned to his seat, a female deputy approached Moyer and Coleman. (Doc. 89-1 at 2; Doc. 89-3 at 2). She is briefly seen on camera, standing by Moyer's seat, before the recording focuses on the next speaker. At this point, it sounds as though Moyer and Coleman may be having a conversation with the deputy; however, the conversation is not audible on the video. According to Moyer and Coleman, the Commissioners were making gestures indicating that they should be removed from the meeting; Moyer also averred that one of the Commissioners told the deputy to " get them out of here." (Doc. 89-1 at 2; Doc. 89-3 at 2). The County maintains that none of the Commissioners asked the deputy to remove Moyer or Coleman from the room. (Doc. 83-1 at 10). The County maintains that, while the deputy was dealing with Moyer, Coleman asked the deputy: " Me too?" ( Id. ). The deputy ...

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