Tennessee County Must Stop Giving Christianity Favored Treatment, Church-State Watchdog Group Warns

Americans United Says Sevier County Commission Promotes Religion With Christian Prayer And Christian Poster

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 yesterday, 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 the Rev. 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.”  

Yesterday’s letter is 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 now even more clearly defined than it was then.

Thanks to an AU win in Mullin v. Sussex County, in which 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 law is abundantly clear.

As for the poster, the letter notes 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.

Americans United also reminded the 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.

The letter asks for a response, including a plan to end the prayers and remove the poster, within 30 days.

AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said that residents of the county who are concerned about the local government’s promotion of religion should contact her or AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith at is@au.org or call (202) 466-3234.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.