Tennessee City Manager Criticized For Ending Regular Prayer Meetings For City Employees During Work Hours

Michelle Williams, was the city manager of Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee for only one full week when she tackled a controversial practice: prayer services during office hours of the employees at City Hall. For years, the local chaplain has been holding prayer services during work hours and Williams pointed out that such observations violated the separation of church and state. She got the local chaplain to agree to hold the daily prayers either before or after work hours. This manifestly reasonable request has led to opposition from some, including City Commissioner Bob Shackelford who wants the prayer sessions to continue.

Mt. Pleasant is a community of 4,500 residents conveniently located halfway between Nashville, TN and Huntsville, Alabama. It was founded in 1824. Williams is a former executive director of the Mt. Pleasant Community Development Corporation.

Williams has offered to accommodate prayer at any time before 8 a.m. or after 5 p.m. and said “we have no problem with them praying, it’s just they need to do it on their own time.” While the local chaplain agreed, there are those like Shackelford who want to see the praying sessions continue during regular hours, noting “[i]f the fire department and the police department are okay with it … it seems like an unwise decision to interfere if it’s okay with the department heads.”

It appears that Shackelford learned separation of church and state as a public safety issue. The fact that local officials support the entanglement with religion is nothing new. More entanglement cases involve majoritarian religion. It is unlikely that the daily prayer sessions involve Pagans or Rastafarians. The point is that, regardless of the fire safety aspects, such entanglement with religion violates the first amendment of the Constitution.

I would be interested in how Shackelford would accommodate other religions demanding to have prayer sessions in city hall during work hours since, as the Court noted in County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater, Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573 (1989), it would not tolerate “practices that demonstrate the government’s allegiance to a particular sect or creed.”

Shackelford supported another candidate for manager in the 3-2 vote to hire Williams.

Williams should be commended rather than criticized for reaching an accommodation with the chaplain while maintaining the wall of separation. While separation principles are under attack, this is an example of how little it takes to resolve such problems. While this was not a case of a public official giving a state-approved prayer, the Court has stressed that “we think that the constitutional prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion must at least mean that, in this country, it is no part of the business of government to compose official prayers for any group of the American people to recite as a part of a religious program carried on by government.” Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962). Here citizens who came to City Hall would find employees engaged in a religious practice led by the local church. The advancement of that particular faith is unmistakable. What Williams did in her second week on the job was to balance the desire for prayer against the need for separation. I can’t wait to see what she tackles in her third week on the job.

Source: Columbia Daily Herald

19 thoughts on “Tennessee City Manager Criticized For Ending Regular Prayer Meetings For City Employees During Work Hours”

  1. “I can’t wait to see what she tackles in her third week on the job.”

    I can’t wait to see if she has a third week on the job.

  2. I would LOVE to be made to pray at work. My prayer is long-coming in at exactly 8 hours!

  3. This sounds like the “prayer before the public High School football game” problem. It seems that everyone who wants to pray together could gather at a nearby church or privately owned parking lot, pray, then head over to the publicly owned football field for the game. Where is the problem with that?

    Frankly – yeah, I’ve heard a bit about that weird “Jesus” guy who’s some tangential figure in Christianity. But so much of what he talked about sounded pretty Socialist (and maybe Communist), and he was such a bleeding heart “peace and love” guy, that most Christians seem to avoid those parts of the Bible. It’s tough to lead troops into war or to crush your political adversaries when you’re reading about some weirdo going on and on about “turning the other cheek” or giving up your own wealth to feed the starving. And all that humility and “meek shall inherit the earth” stuff makes it hard to run a proper money-making religion.

  4. Oh Wow, We made national news.. I live down the street in Spring Hill, TN.. We had a day of prayer here and everyone congregated at City Hall.. 🙁

  5. “What Williams did in her second week on the job was to balance the desire for prayer against the need for separation. I can’t wait to see what she tackles in her third week on the job.”

    Me either. This country needs more civil servants with such a clear grasp on our basic Constitutional principles. Good job, Ms./Mrs. Williams. Way to defend the Constitution.

  6. “Good for her, I like this woman.” JayneD

    Yep, so do I… (I can’t help but wonder how long she’s been in Mt. is-it-really-so-Pleasant and how long she’ll stay…)

  7. It’s not team building if it’s not your team. At which point it becomes “exclusion reinforcement”. Good for her, I like this woman.

  8. *sigh* Our mayor (Rochester, MN) has decided that council meetings should begin with a prayer. He’d like religious leaders from various faiths to lead the prayers. Meaningless, illegal, and stupid. People are already talking about a lawsuit if he persists.

  9. OS, “team building” was one of chief reasons I left the corporate world. The owner of the last company was a salesman with IBM since movable type, and brought with him all the old sales songs they used sing together at the beginning of each day, and at his command generally. They took hits of the day (1950 something, and none of your rock and/or roll) and set them to sales lyrics that also incorporated a loose fealty to this god fellow. It was no different than church, because there wasn’t any way you weren’t going to hail IBM, and that was that.

    Liberty requires the freedom to opt out of nonsense without penalty.

  10. Mike, in our line of work, we called it ‘Team Building’ exercises. Same principle, different venue.

  11. I have a hunch that this takes place in many more venues then we would expect. It is also an indication as to where the Right wants to take us with their
    version of religion. As James alluded, this is more about maintaining group adherence via visible ritual, than it is about piety.

  12. Matthew 6
    5 “And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 6 But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

    That is directly from their saviors mouth but they really don’t pay much attention to the guy.

  13. If you take away people’s ability to pray in public, they cannot meet the primary commandment of this nutty religion: being seen praying by one’s peers to avoid ejection from the community. This may have worked in the Age of Paper, but no longer. Those who maintain this monolith are not being replaced by those who come after. Pastor is now being compelled to return to church following his long, torrid affair in our Public Square.

  14. Aren’t there any teabaggers in Tennessee to complain about tax dollars being wasted on paying public workers for doing no work?

    Offer them a free bus ride and lunch and throw in a stupid hat they can wear on their next casino trip and the boobs will flock to Mt. Pleasant and set things right.

  15. Andy, hey this is Tennessee. Gotta go to New Orleans to get some real soul food pasta.

  16. OS,

    Not being a believer I am ignorant on the issue but surely the FSM has better taste than the “food” from Fazoli’s?

  17. Hey raff, this is TENNESSEE. The Volunteer State, where the National Anthem is “Rocky Top,” and the national sports shrine is the Bristol Motor Speedway.

    The people of middle Tennessee see nothing at all wrong with imposing their religion and values on others. However, you damn well better not try to build a mosque in town.

    If I were to move to Mt. Pleasant, I would insist on three meals of spaghetti and meatballs at work every day in honor of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The city could just get a vendor’s contract with the local temple, Fazoli’s, to provide the FSM religious services.

  18. Following the law and reasonableness just don’t matter in Mt. Pleasant. The city commissioner should be ejected from office, but I imagine common sense won’t rule the day.

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