The Hamilton County commission is serene about its custom of offering a prayer to God before meetings. Its convictions in the matter, despite threats from two indignant residents who sued in U.S. District Court on Friday, are settled.
The two critics of the petitions to God — Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones — who are seeking a preliminary injunction in their federal complaint, aren’t mere cranks, as some people might gracelessly declare. They realize that the formulation “in Jesus’ name” is crucial to their claim that identifies the body of the people’s elected representatives as Christian in their general orientation. If Jesus’ name is cast into the darkness beyond the bright light of prayer, it becomes what is called a generic prayer. That is, a prayer to an unidentified and presumably harmless deity by whom no one would be offended, as he stakes no claim upon their lives or their allegiance.
The critics no doubt would favor an end to prayer of any sort. Prayer implies that man is a creature, a subject; it implies God is a Lord, even of Tennesseans and their democratic institutions. They would perhaps tolerate a dechristianized prayer, if only at the very least. That would not impede their desire to have the commission be steered toward a more materialist frame of mind.
The people’s representatives know their theology better. Taking Christ out of a prayer to God effectively denies all other doctrines of Christianity. If Christ is not the mediator, the One through whom a man has access to God the Father, the entire structure of Christianity might be seen as truly in pieces, a shambles on the floor. Christ’s role as advocate, mediator, intermediary between a holy God and sinful, fallen man is central to Christianity and distinguishes Christianity from religion.
THE FOUNDERS OF OUR state, in their compact with its free people, wrote into the constitution a disqualification for any state officeholder. Article 9 contains three rules, one of which prohibits dueling. Another prevents Christian ministers from being in the General Assembly, and a third forbids atheists from holding any state office.
The second of these provisions, on atheism, doesn’t suffer from overreach. The constitution does not presume to thrust its hand into an officeholder’s soul and require him to believe in God. Rather, more deferentially, more realistically, it simply prohibits professed and self-styled atheists from holding office.
No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this state.
So, a man who makes a profession of atheism, or who is known to deny God and deny the existence of heaven or hell, is barred from office. An officeholder’s religious beliefs are important for the press to cover. A legislator or commissioner who makes statements indicating he is an atheist would be subject to impeachment and removal, according to the constitution. It would be a major scandal for such a controversy to be dug up — denying the existence of God. Big media of our day — TV stations, the Times Free Press, the Nashville Banner — do not concern themselves with a political figure’s religious beliefs. But an officeholder’s religious ideas are a legitimate area for news reporting.
It is unconstitutional for an atheist to hold office partly because he cannot bind himself by invoking God’s name in an oath.
“[An atheist] cannot be a constable, nor even an administrator. The reason given, in addition to the constitutional provision, is that such a person cannot take the oath; that he cannot be trusted, and that he is not trustworthy. The constitution has pointed her artillery against such as avow themselves to be atheists. No law can place an atheist upon a footing with a Christian, because the constitution has placed the barrier between them.” — Notes to decisions, Tennessee Code Annotated, Article 9
The constitution contains a complementary provision that helps position and indirectly affirms the ban of atheism. It’s the prohibition on religious tests. It might first appear our state fathers are contradicting themselves in Article 1, but they’re not. Here’s what they write:
“Sec. 4. No religious or political test.
“That no political or religious test, other than an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and of this State, shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this State.”
This provision prohibits any test among Anglicans and Presbyterians, or between a papist and a Wesleyan, between a Baptist and a devotee of the Torah. In other words, the legislature will not take part in a family feud among various communions of Christianity (or Judaism). None of these parties could be accused of atheism, as they believe in God and insist on a future state of rewards and punishments.
The two provisions I cite are not incoherent. One limits tests among Christians, the other insists the officeholder make no claims, no statement, take no position against God and the places of heaven or hell. It is not required that he believe in God, just that he is forbidden to deny him in any public fashion. And insofar as he seeks office, no requirement can be made that he be a Baptist or a Methodist.
COUNTY COMMISSION MEMBERS are not officers “of the state,” being servants and ministers of Hamilton County. They don’t represent the state’s voters, but the county’s. Arguably the constitutional provisions do not apply to these men.
Still, one could consider an argument that the provisions do apply to the commission on the grounds of agency. Hamilton County is a division or subdivision of state government. The county is creaturely, an arm, hand and leg of the state, acts as agent for the state, and is thus equal to Tennessee government in its capacities and the scope of its authority. ‡
I leave this notion of interchangeability of state and county office as a morsel for thought. If one could research the relationship between the state and a municipal corporation, one might conclude that a county’s officers are on the same level as state officials insofar as obedience to the ban on atheism is concerned.
The lawsuit claims the commission is violating federal supreme court opinions on the First Amendment which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof *** .” Federal judges hold this provision to be a ban on Christianity, preferring instead to elevate the concepts of humanism and statism, which deny a supernatural or cosmic order to the universe.
A negative rule against atheism is not perhaps helpful in county attorney Rheubin Taylor’s brief to the judge who’ll hear the case. But it shows that God is part of the state’s legal fabric. The members of the county commissioners are acting in good faith with their prayers, not in bad faith. Arguably, since they took an oath to uphold the state constitution, they can insist that prayer is in keeping with their submission to “the being of God” and acknowledgement of “a future state of rewards and punishments.”
I’d like very soon to consider the compulsion of county attorney Rheubin Taylor who on June 6 offered the prayer in Christ’s name at the commission meeting. Is it necessary to pray in the name of the Son of God? Is anything really amiss before God from an intentionally “generic” prayer?
‡ Insofar as it’s pertinent, an Illinois case suggests the high esteem the law gives to municipal government as part of the state itself. “The purpose of municipal corporations generally is to carry into effect some power which the State itself may, but cannot conveniently, exercise, and we see no distinction between the power of the State to establish a municipality or a municipal corporation to carry out a public purpose and the vesting of such power in a municipality already in existence.” People v, Chicago Transit Authority, 392 Ill. 77; 64 N.E.2d 4; 1945 Ill. Lexis 412
Sources: Corpus Juris Secundum, municipal corporations