Federal Court Upholds Prayers Before Government Meetings

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Joshua Gill Religion Reporter
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A federal court ruled in favor of invocations before government meetings Wednesday, overturning a previous decision that said such prayer is unconstitutional.

An en banc review by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, in which all of the judges on the circuit preside, overturned a three judge panel’s ruling against the Board of Commissioners in Jackson County, Mich., according to First Liberty Institute. The circuit court’s panel previously ruled that invocations before government meetings breached the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“Well we applaud the 6th Circuit for its decision today. The court faithfully followed controlling Supreme Court precedent, and it’s a big win for religious liberty consistent with the Constitution,” Ken Klukowski, Senior Counsel at First Liberty, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

First Liberty, acting defense for the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, cited Supreme Court opinions for Marsh v. Chambers  and Town of Greece v. Galloway, which held that prayers before local government meetings do not constitute a breech of the Establishment Clause.

The 6th Circuit’s decision stands in stark contrast to a previous en banc decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against prayers before meetings of the Rowan County Commissioner’s Office in North Carolina. First Liberty, which also represented the Rowan County office, is currently considering appealing the 4th Circuit’s ruling in that case. Klukowski told The DCNF that the 6th Circuit’s decision had “tremendous” bearing on the future outcome of the Rowan County case.

“The 6th Circuit, correctly in our view, reached exactly the opposite conclusion, saying that the fact that the person offering prayers happens to hold public office – that in and of itself doesn’t coerce anyone,” Klukowski told The DCNF.

“So long as the government does not take an official action against you to retaliate for the fact that you don’t like their religious activity — or is somehow taking official action to denigrate you, to go after you — so long as that’s not happening, the Establishment Clause permits various practices that all sorts of us on an individual level might not personally agree with,” he said.

Klokowski also noted that both the 6th Circuit’s decision and a previous Supreme Court case helped establish what does and does not equate to coercion — specifically that just because someone is offended, it does not mean that they are being coerced.

“Now, one thing that was specifically focused on in Town of Greece that’s relevant here is that the court acknowledged that people may be offended by prayers. But in our form of democratic society, we all see and hear things every day that offend us. Just because it offends us does not make it unconstitutional. As the court explicitly said ‘offense does not equate to coercion,'” Klukowski told TheDCNF.

Circuit court splits are ” by far the number one reason for the Supreme Court to grant review on a case” according to Klukowski. The Rowan County case is even more likely to get Supreme Court review because the decision in that case was a full court split as opposed to a two to one judge panel split.

The 6th Court’s decision also represents a return to the original intent of the Establishment Clause as it was interpreted in 1791, when the First Amendment was adopted, according to Klukowski. Klukowski said the Supreme Court began returning to that interpretation in 2014 with the Town of Greece v. Galloway case. The case established that a local government setting and the use of materials unique to one religion for prayers do not make a difference in terms of its constitutionality and does not constitute coercion.

“So long as something was historically accepted, and no one is being coerced by the government, the Establishment Clause is satisfied, and its just left to politics and the democratic process in terms of what’s going to be allowed and what’s not,” Klukowski told TheDCNF.

The Rowan County Commissioner’s office will vote in the last week of September on whether or not it will file for Supreme Court review.

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