MEMPHIS, TN (abc24.com) - Memphis is being sued for praying before each city council meeting. A national atheist group from Wisconsin called the Freedom From Religion Foundation traveled to Memphis to make the official announcement Sunday afternoon.
The group says Memphis has been violating the constitution for decades and it's going to stop now. The atheist group says Memphis is the worst city in the country when it comes to keeping church and state separate. In fact, the group says the city embraces it.
The audience cheered and clapped when the co-president of the foundation, Dan Barker said, "We decided we're going to sue Memphis.”
People packed a meeting room at the Memphis Public Library to hear Barker speak about the lawsuit against the Bluff City. Everyone in attendance seemed relieved that a lawsuit is finally happening after years of allowing prayer before every city council meeting.
"I think it's appropriate. It protects our constitutional rights. It's the right thing to do,” said Dennis Cupp, who attended Sunday’s meeting.
Cupp was born and raised in Memphis. He's also a former Christian. He says it's hard to be an atheist in the Bible belt but is happy someone is finally standing up to keep religion out of city government.
"It may not be the more popular thing to do because of the religious climate of the community but popularity doesn't always necessarily mean it's right," said Cupp. "The constitution protects us from the religion encroaching. That's why a lot of people left the mother country to come over here."
City council allows prayer because they were told it's constitutional.
"The Supreme Court in Marsh versus Chambers said because of the long history and tradition of it, prayer at legislative session was not going to be considered a violation of separation of church and state,” said Steve Mulroy, a University of Memphis law professor.
The co-president of the foundation says if “tradition" is the city’s defense, the city doesn't have a fighting chance.
"Tradition is not an argument for a violation of state church separation. You can make the same argument about the segregation of schools. It was a long tradition back then but that doesn't trump the first amendment, it doesn't trump the constitution,” said Barker.
In the end the judge will ultimately decide who's right when it comes to upholding the constitution. City council is not worried about it.
"In Memphis, we have so many problems; we've got blight and poverty, and a declining population and that's where we focus as a council on those important issues that really affect people's daily lives,” said councilman Jim Strickland.
While some may believe praying before city council is not a big deal others believe it is their right to speak out.
"Keeping state and church separate is something worth fighting for,” Barker stated.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is in the process of asking Memphians to testify against the city. The lawsuit will be filed as early as this week.