Patch Tension

Patch tension ongoing as group sends another letter to Lenoir City

Stephanie Myers-News-Herald

Tension over Lenoir City Police uniforms continues more than five months after a secular group first demanded the word "religion" be removed from the patch.

Mayor Tony Aikens said Monday evening at a regular Lenoir City Council meeting that the group has sent yet another letter to city officials claiming the patch, inscribed with the words "Industry, Education, Religion," promotes religion and is therefore unconstitutional.

The letter, the "third or fourth" of its kind, Aikens said, was sent within the last month and is basically the same as the others.

The mayor said the city is sticking to its original stance made in late March.

"We've told them our position and that's what we are going to continue to do," Aikens said after the council meeting. "We're not going to waiver. We are going to continue on the path that we are on."

Aikens authorized City Attorney James Scott to respond.

Lenoir City first received a letter from the organization in January, but did not respond. After a second letter was sent, council authorized Scott to return a letter firmly standing against the foundation's assertions.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation threatens possible litigation in the letters, but Scott said he does not believe the quoted cases are relevant.

"I asked them to send me case law that is directly on point, analogous to these patches because the way I look at these patches is very similar to the dollar bill saying, 'In God We Trust,' and that's perfectly acceptable," Scott said. "It's a nondenominational statement. That's it."

FFRF constitutional consultant Andrew Seidel said the litigation is "mostly" Supreme Court precedent.

"You can't endorse religion over nonreligion," Seidel said. "The Supreme Court has said that in something like nine or 10 other cases. ... The seal is considered an endorsement. We have a lot of precedent that city seals, logos, patches, anything like that if they have religious imagery they have been found to violate the establishment clause.

"There is not any doubt this is a violation of the First Amendment," he said. "The question remains how is it going to be cured. That is up to Lenoir City and the police department to determine. Our goal is to get that off the patch, and we are going to continue to work at that until we've succeeded."

Seidel said a couple of local people have complained about the patch and other "issues going on in Lenoir City."

"From our experience, I can tell the backlash for complaints in Tennessee is worse than it is in Rhode Island, typically," Seidel said. "Our complainant may not want to make himself or herself publicly known. That is going to be our biggest concern. We don't want them to suffer ridicule. It is more than that. People lose their jobs over this kind of thing."

Though Seidel said the group hopes "to resolve this without having to resort to anything legal" because of the expense of lawsuits, the group isn't ruling out the option to take the matter to court.

Both sides are hoping the other buckles.

"I expect to hear from them again, yes, but I don't know. Let's hope they change their position," Aikens said.

He is confident the residents stand behind the city's decision.

"I feel like the community is certainly supportive of my office and city council and that they want us to continue on the path that we are on. We're certainly going to do that," Aikens said.

In other business, council:

● Heard from Lenoir City resident William Harvey, who complained about a drainage ditch problem on his property at 177 Rock Springs Road. Even though there is no recorded drainage easement and the property does have an existing natural drainage ditch, Harvey wants the city to resolve the issue.

"There is a problem. I don't have a right to use my property," Harvey said, claiming Fifth Amendment rights.

Scott said the city is by law only allowed to purchase property that serves a public purpose by nature.

"Based upon what you've described thus far to me in person and in letter, I don't think we, technically at this point and time, have the constitutional authority to purchase your property or under an obligation to remedy it," Scott said.

● Heard from Dr. Cormac O'Duffy, a native of Ireland, who raised an issue with ambulance service costs.

"What I didn't realize, relatively new to the United States, is the cost. ... I thought this would be covered by an insurance or some other means, but no. What I subsequently discovered was that Rural Metro and a lot of the other ambulance systems are run on a business basis and can in fact set their own rates for services," O'Duffy said, adding the ambulance service should be run on a nonprofit basis. "It should be a free service."

Council told O'Duffy the city has no control with the matter, and O'Duffy should talk with Loudon County Mayor Estelle Herron and county commissioners.

● Adopted Lenoir City Utilities Board's drought management plan, which gives LCUB power to curb nonessential water usage during a drought.

● Approved the personnel committee's recommendation to change Shelley Herron's part-time deputy clerk position to full-time.