Supreme Court Sides With Offended Atheists in Lawsuit Against Florida City Over Prayer Vigil

Supreme Court Sides With Offended Atheists in Lawsuit Against Florida City Over Prayer Vigil
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at the Supreme Court building in Washington on June 1, 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Matthew Vadum

The Supreme Court sided with atheists on March 6 when it decided not to hear an appeal by a Florida city that sought to halt a lawsuit over a city-sponsored prayer vigil.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas objected to the court’s decision to deny the petition in City of Ocala, Florida v. Rojas, court file 22-278. The court majority didn’t explain why it denied the petition.

The refusal comes despite the fact that the high court has become increasingly protective in recent years of constitutionally based religious freedoms.

The case dates to 2014, when Ocala held a public vigil after drive-by shootings in which young children were injured. Community leaders suggested that a prayer vigil be conducted to promote public healing, and the local chief of police encouraged residents to attend.

Some local atheists, the respondents in the current appeal, attended the vigil and claimed that by organizing the event, the city had violated the so-called separation of church and state and the Constitution’s establishment clause, which prevents the government from establishing an official religion and expressing a preference for one religion over another.

The respondents said that the vigil featured religious elements that offended them and made them feel excluded.

“Uniformed police personnel preached Christianity in a revivalist style to hundreds of citizens assembled at its behest for an hour in the heart of town,” according to the respondents’ brief.

“The [respondents] were invited to attend by their own city officials and had an interest in being a part of the community and were concerned about crime. They attended but were unable to participate in any of the activity because it was all prayer.”

They sued in federal district court, which found that at least one of the respondents had what has been termed “offended observer” standing to bring the lawsuit. The court granted judgment against the city, holding the respondents had legal standing and that the vigil ran afoul of the establishment clause, according to Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971).

While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit was considering the city’s appeal, the Supreme Court ruled in June 2022 that a school district in Washington state violated First Amendment religious freedom protections when it fired high school football coach Joseph Kennedy for leading personal prayers at the 50-yard line after games. The high court abandoned the test in Lemon and found that the U.S. Constitution neither requires nor allows governments to suppress such religious expression.

The 11th Circuit remanded the Ocala case to the district court to “give it an opportunity to apply ... the historical practices and understandings standard endorsed” in the new precedent, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

The city argued before the 11th Circuit that the case shouldn’t be allowed to proceed. The court ruled against the city, which lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court on Sept. 22, 2022.

The American Humanist Association (AHA), which represented the respondents, hailed the Supreme Court’s new ruling.

“Today’s decision to send Ocala back to the district court reinforces what the American Humanist Association has long fought for: government entities cannot coercively promote religious practices,” AHA President Sunil Panikkath said in a statement forwarded to The Epoch Times.

“As opponents to the separation of religion and government continue their anti-democratic agenda in their attempts to obliterate the line between church and state, our work defending that separation becomes ever more important to ensure the religious freedom of all Americans.”

The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative nonprofit public interest law firm representing Ocala, said the case isn’t over yet.

“The case continues in trial court and we will continue to litigate,” a spokesman told The Epoch Times by email.

Thomas filed a dissenting opinion (pdf), saying he has “serious doubts about the legitimacy of the ‘offended observer’ theory of standing.” Allowing psychological injuries to be sufficient to bring an establishment clause lawsuit would be a mistake, he wrote.

“Because standing based on mere offense is in significant tension with Article III and our precedents, I would have granted [the petition] to determine whether the courts below lacked jurisdiction,” Thomas wrote. Article III of the U.S. Constitution deals with the structure and powers of the federal judiciary.

Justice Neil Gorsuch filed a brief statement.

“This Court has never endorsed the notion that an ‘offended observer’ may bring an Establishment Clause claim,” he wrote.

But, because the case is still pending in the lower courts, there is no reason for the Supreme Court to intervene at this time, Gorsuch wrote, adding that the city retains the option of seeking relief from the high court again in the future.

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