Appeals Court Says Michigan County’s Christian-Only Prayers Are Unconstitutional

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners in Michigan never understood how invocation prayers worked.

They delivered it themselves, which they can’t do. The invocations were always Christian, which constituted government endorsement of religion. And when resident Peter Bormuth (a Pagan) pointed all this out during a 2013 meeting, the Commissioners dismissed his concerns. One of them literally turned his back on Bormuth.

When Bormuth filed a pro se lawsuit (in which he represents himself) against the County, things got worse:

A Commissioner refers to Plaintiff Peter Bormuth as a “nitwit”

… one of the Commissioners publicly referred to him as a “nitwit.” Another warned against allowing invited guests to give invocations for fear that they would express non-Christian religious beliefs. Still another described the lawsuit as “an attack on Christianity, and… an attack on our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

A magistrate judge eventually said that summary judgment should be granted in Bormuth’s favor… but a District Judge ignored the recommendation and ruled in favor of the County. The case was then kicked up to the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. It was 2015 when all this happened.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed an amicus brief in Bormuth’s defense reiterating all the problems with the Commissioners’ actions: They advanced Christianity and coerced religious participation by asking the audience to bow their heads during the prayers and mocking anyone who disagreed:

“There are more than 160,000 people residing in Jackson County, and I’m sure not all of them are Christians,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Jackson County’s commissioners must adopt a more inclusive policy for invocations and stop pressuring its citizens to participate in unwanted prayers.”

It took long enough, but the Appeals Court finally issued a ruling on the matter yesterday. In a 2-1 decision, they correctly ruled against the County.

The prayers offered at those meetings were not the sort of prayers that pass legal muster:

… When the Board of Commissioners opens its monthly meetings with prayers, there is no distinction between the government and the prayer giver: they are one and the same. The prayers, in Bormuth’s words, are literally “governmental speech.”

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners’ affirmative exclusion of non Christian prayers puts one faith, Christianity, in a privileged position. It ensures that only Christians will hear prayers that speak to their religious beliefs at Board of Commissioners meetings. Worse, it ensures that only Christians will hear prayers that speak to their religious beliefs because the government has singled out Christian prayer as uniquely able to solemnize these meetings. The affirmative exclusion thus advances one faith over others.

Accordingly, we hold that the Board of Commissioners’ use of prayer to begin its monthly meetings violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The prayer practice is well outside the tradition of historically tolerated prayer, and it coerces Jackson County residents to support and participate in the exercise of religion.

Americans United praised the judges for making the right call:

“Government should not be in the business of promoting any religion or imposing it on its citizens,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “When government officials give prayers that are exclusively Christians, that tells non-Christians that they are second-class citizens.”

If the County wants to waste taxpayer money fighting this, there are options… but this ruling is thorough in the analysis. This is promotion of Christianity under the guise of a neutral prayer. It’s illegal. And after several years, it’s finally going to stop.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier)

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