A federal appeals court in February ruled that a Michigan county’s policy of opening its meetings with exclusively Christian prayers was unconstitutional, a decision that will be reheard by the full appeals court.
A three-member panel of judges from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 15 ruled 2-1 in favor of Peter Bormuth, a Druid who opposed the prayer policy of Jackson County commissioners. Board members opened their meetings by personally delivering exclusively Christian prayers.
In addition to telling attendees to rise and bow their heads for the prayers, commissioners singled out Bormuth for abuse after he filed the lawsuit. During a public meeting, one commissioner called Bormuth’s lawsuit an “attack on Christianity and Jesus Christ, period.” Another called him a “nitwit.”
In deciding the case, Bormuth v. County of Jackson, the panel of judges noted: “In disparaging Bormuth, the Board of Commissioners’ message is clear: residents who refuse to participate in the prayers are disfavored.”
In conclusion, the panel observed, “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.”
Americans United had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Bormuth and Gregory M. Lipper, then AU’s senior litigation counsel, argued the case before the court.
AU recognized the ruling with a statement from Executive Director Barry W. Lynn: “Government should not be in the business of promoting any religion or imposing it on its citizens. When government officials give prayers that are exclusively Christian, that tells non-Christians that they are second-class citizens.”
But days later, the full 6th Circuit Court vacated the panel’s ruling and ordered the case to be reheard before the entire bench of 15 judges. Oral arguments are scheduled for June 14, and AU plans to participate.