MEMPHIS, TN (abc24.com) - The battle to keep religion and government separate is brewing in the Mid-South. A national atheist group is planning to sue the city of Memphis for praying before each council meeting. City council members say they have bigger fish to fry.
Memphis City council members say it's a very old tradition to start every meeting with a prayer but a national atheist group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation says that tradition is unconstitutional.
"In order to honor the first amendment the government needs to remain neutral on religion. So that we citizens are truly free to believe where disbelieve as we choose,” said the national group’s co-president Dan Barker.
Barker says governments should not force religious practices on to people.
"There have been a lot of decisions in various circuit levels and at the Supreme Court declaring sectarian prayers, prayers to Jesus in Christian prayer to be unconstitutional,” Barker told abc24 news in a phone interview.
University of Memphis Law professor Steve Mulroy disagrees.
"If they're claiming that they have a case law that says sectarian prayer is unconstitutional then I'd like to see it,” said Mulroy.
Mulroy says the decision to keep legislative prayer was made in a 1983 Supreme Court case.
"The Supreme Court has ruled that legislative prayer is not unconstitutional," Mulroy stated. “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."
The atheist group says just because it is a tradition doesn't mean it is right.
"We're free in this country to disagree about religious issues but what we are not free to do is ask our government to settle the argument. We don't have majority rule when it comes to the Bill of Rights,” said Barker.
Memphis City Councilman Jim Strickland says if the group believes there's a case to go ahead and sue but he's not worried.
"In Memphis, we have so many problems: we've got blight and poverty, and a declining population, and even though the crime rate is going down, it's still too high you know. That's where we focus as a council on those important issues that really affect people's daily lives,” Strickland stated.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation will hold a public meeting on August 26th at the Main Library on Poplar Avenue to talk about all the other issues going on in the Mid-South such as the recent Desoto County prayers, the Whiteville Cross issue, and the possible legal action against the City of Memphis prayers before meetings.