Sumner County Commission faces scrutiny over First Amendment issues

  • The Sumner County Commission adopted a preamble to its standing rules and procedures document in October.
  • The preamble stated that the commission would act and reflect “Judeo-Christian values”.
  • First Amendment experts and the county’s own attorney say it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

A Tennessee County is under scrutiny for adopting a preamble to an official document that ensures commissioners act with “Judeo-Christian values,” a decision that even the county’s own attorney – as well as outside experts – says be a violation of the First Amendment.

The Sumner County In October, the Commission voted 20 to 4 to adopt a preamble to the county’s permanent rules and procedures stating that it should operate to serve residents and exceed what Tennessee law requires. The rules and procedures are necessary “in order to perfect the operation of our county government, to ensure that it is fair, orderly, efficient, cost-effective and above all that it reflects the Judeo-Christian values ​​inherent in the founding of our nation”, according to the preamble of the commissioners approved.

But the addition of the section on Judeo-Christian values ​​immediately ran into criticism and legal questions.

“It would be a violation of the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause,” Acting County Attorney Ben Allen told commissioners during the lengthy meeting. “The Supreme Court may change its mind tomorrow on what a Establishment Clause breach means, but it’s very expensive to be the ones to find out if that’s the case.”

The commissioners said the adoption of the preamble was significant and, in their view, recognized the values ​​rooted in the founding of the nation.

Read it:What Tennessee politics say about the rise of Christian nationalism in the United States

“The only thing it states here is the ‘Judeo-Christian values ​​inherent in the founding of our nation’ – it’s just a reference to history,” Commissioner Matthew Shoaf said. respect this code. We only recognize the specific historical context.

But Allen and other experts say the preamble could be seen as an “endorsement” of Christianity, opening the county up to trial.

“Where the government is able to incorporate religion, such as in our prayers, there are very specific Supreme Court rules that specify what government organizations can, when they can, and under what circumstances they can,” a- he declared. “Establishment under the Establishment Clause is not just creating, it is also approving or adopting.

“The First Amendment protects religious rights in two ways – both through freedom of speech as individuals and through the freedom of your government to choose your religion and endorse it under the Establishment Clause. that you may or may not follow,” he said. “So it would be under that part of the First Amendment.”

‘Illegal, unpatriotic and just plain rude,’ says First Amendment expert

The reaction against the preamble was swift. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, for example, is calling for its immediate removal.

“The Supreme Court has long held that the Establishment Clause requires the government to remain neutral between religions, and between religion and non-religion,” Samantha Lawrence, the group’s legal adviser, said in a statement to the president of the Sumner County Commission, Merrol Hyde. . “Where the council blatantly promotes a specific brand of religion, going so far as to declare it in the preamble to its standing rules and procedures, it sends an unequivocal message to all non-religious and minority religious citizens ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, privileged members, “to quote the Supreme Court”.

The organization, which works to promote the separation of church and state, has also pushed back against the idea that the country was founded on Judeo-Christian values.

“It is wrong to say that our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values,” Lawrence said. “The concept of ‘Judeo-Christian values’ did not even exist until the middle of the 20th century, let alone at the time of the founding of the United States. On the contrary, the United States was founded by enlightened thinkers who valued reason and skepticism.

“If the Framers had wanted to establish the United States on the basis of religious principles, they would have said so in the Constitution, our nation’s founding document. Instead, our founders made our country the first among nations to adopt an ungodly and entirely secular Constitution, whose only references to religion are exclusive.

David Hudson, a Belmont University Law School professor and First Amendment expert, called the preamble a “clear violation.”

“I think it’s a clear violation of the Establishment Clause,” said Hudson, who is also a member of the Freedom Forum. “Because the essence of the Establishment Clause — the first 10 words of the First Amendment — is to provide a degree of separation between church and state. And one of the essential tenants of the establishment clause is neutrality towards religion.

Hudson said the perception of favoritism creates the problem.

“It indicates favoritism or endorsement of a religion,” he said. “It is true that history and tradition are important values ​​in our constitutional calculus… But that being said, the clear order is that there must be governmental neutrality in matters of religion, and that indicates the non-neutrality.”

Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, said the question couldn’t be “simpler.”

“This action is clearly in violation of the US Constitution, and beyond that is just plain rude,” Paulson said. “The government is supposed to represent everyone, not just those with Judeo-Christian backgrounds. It’s a bad way to pretend that no one else’s faith matters… What they are doing is illegal and unpatriotic.

Paulson said the preamble creates multiple problems.

“You have a double iron here – you have a clear violation of the US Constitution, and you have a government agency that seemingly proudly tramples the rights of others,” he said. “It’s an interesting approach to work. I’m pretty sure Judeo-Christian values ​​include abiding by the law, and yet that doesn’t seem to register with this particular government agency.

Paulson disagreed with the commissioners’ arguments that the preamble merely acknowledged the history of religious influence in the founding of the nation.

“I’m intrigued by anyone pointing to the wording of the language as if they’re ashamed to do that,” he said, explaining that the commissioners referring to the language as simply “a nod to the history” showed that they clearly knew that they were walking on thin legal ice. “Either the county commission is proud of its collective Judeo-Christian heritage, and willing to violate the constitution to officially adopt it, or not. Why would they turn to get out of jail? they’ve done, and they should be.

Paulson said comments about “defending Christianity,” like those from Jones who encouraged other commissioners to vote despite the risk of litigation, “clearly indicate” that the Sumner County commission intends to violate the first amendment.

“These comments make it clear that the Sumner County Commission is absolutely determined to violate the separation of church and state,” he said. “They now have an obligation, when they go against the advice of their own lawyer, to share the record of every tax dollar they spend in what will no doubt be a losing battle. ‘advance. They know they’re going to lose, and if they want to fight, they shouldn’t be using taxpayers’ money.

Why the Sumner Commissioners are pushing the issue

Commissioner Mary Genung proposed the preamble and, according to Allen, presented it at the request of a resident. There is no record of an email with a resident regarding the preamble, according to a public records request by The Tennessean, and the Genung did not return a request for comment.

The vast majority of commissioners supported the preamble.

Commissioner Tim Jones welcomed a legal challenge.

“I think we can still be sued regardless, but (the First Amendment) guaranteed freedom of religion, not freedom of religion,” he said. “Reflecting or making a historical reference is very important. And as a Christian, I cannot operate from a position of fear. I serve God first, and this county second.

Jones said some things “have to be argued.”

“Look at the shape our county has taken by acting from a place of fear, by not standing up for what each of you know is right, who claim to be Christians,” he said. “We must be united on this point if you believe in your Christian values. Don’t be afraid to say it because of what someone might try to do to us. Fixing a percentage could ensure that our riding is well placed. Because right now a lot of things are going to go wrong in a hand basket.

After Commissioner J. Wes Wynne questioned whether including the phrase was a waste of taxpayers’ money, Commissioner Jeremy Mansfield pushed back.

“We are not Iran, we are not Iraq, we are not Australia,” he said. “We are American and founded on Judeo-Christian values. That’s what makes us unique… Let’s talk about a waste of taxpayers’ money — our schools have pornographic material in their libraries that violates state law. It is a waste of taxpayers’ money. Let’s get rid of this shit in our school. (The Commissioners) are going to pass judgment on this because they have values ​​inherent in the founding of our nation, codified in the principles of Judaism and Christianity.

Mansfield said the language “honored” their Judeo-Christian values ​​and told taxpayers the commissioners would not “lie, steal people’s property or cheat.”

“It’s not a violation of the First Amendment,” he said. “That’s just not the case. We are not establishing a religion here. America was not founded on the freedom to establish a religion… We are not an Islamic nation. We were not based on Buddhism. Hinduism. We were founded on Judeo-Christian values. It is a historical fact. Any other argument is demagoguery.

After Commissioner Jerry Becker moved a failed motion to remove the reference altogether, saying he couldn’t “support anything that violates the constitution,” Wynne tried to find a compromise by changing the language to say “recognize the historical Judeo-Christian” instead of values ​​“reflecting the Judeo-Christians”.

The action was also shot and the original language was adopted.

USA Today Network – Tennessee’s coverage of First Amendment issues is funded through a collaboration between the Freedom Forum and journalism funding partners.

Do you have a story to tell? Contact Angele Latham by email at [email protected], by phone at 731-343-5212, or follow her on Twitter at @angele_latham.