Officials in Sumner County, Tennessee, are under fire for including a reference to “the Judeo-Christian values inherent in our nation’s founding” in a document outlining “standing rules” for county commissioners.
The preamble to the county’s “Standing Rules and Procedures,” amended in October, reads in part, “In order to perfect the operation of our County government, to ensure that it is just, orderly, efficient, cost-effective and most importantly reflective of the Judeo-Christian values inherent in our nation’s founding…”
The wording, approved at an Oct. 17 commissioners’ meeting, was finalized over the objections of interim county attorney Ben Allen. According to the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, which first reported the story, Mr. Allen said the text “would be a violation of the First Amendment and the establishment clause.”
Mr. Allen’s concerns were buttressed by a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist advocacy group that lobbies to “protect the constitutional principle” of church-state separation.
“The Board may not use its legislative power to promote, favor, and force a select set of religious values on Sumner County’s citizens,” FRFF legal fellow Samantha F. Lawrence wrote. “[I]t is erroneous to assert that our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values. The concept of ‘Judeo-Christian values’ did not even exist until the mid 20th Century, let alone at the time the United States was founded.”
Chris Line, a FRFF staff attorney, said in a telephone interview that Sumner officials could have avoided the problem by saying which values were involved.
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“If they wanted to list particular values that they were talking about, that [is] taking them out of the religious context, maybe that would be permissible, but the way that they’re doing it gives the appearance that they’re favoring religion,” Mr. Line said.
But First Liberty Institute, a public-interest law firm in Plano, Texas, said in a letter to Mr. Allen that the prohibition cited by the FRFF attorneys is no longer in effect.
The group, which secured the right of a Bremerton, Washington, high school football coach to pray on the field last June, said a recent Supreme Court ruling has changed the rules. Senior counsel Roger Byron wrote to Mr. Allen saying the decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District “overruled” the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman high court decision that blocked the “endorsement” of religious principles.
“Any commentary or legal advice you receive that fails to account for Kennedy, its overruling of Lemon, its requirements and its control of Establishment Clause matters should be met with substantial skepticism, at best,” Mr. Byron wrote.
Mr. Line said the Kennedy decision did not change the law as much as First Liberty argues. He said the Sumner preamble “is still a violation of the law until the court decides to clarify that it no longer believes in the core value of separation of church and state that we’ve had at the heart of our country since its founding.”
Neither Mr. Allen nor Merrol N. Hyde, commission chairman, immediately responded to a reporter’s request for comment.