6th Circuit ruling upheld, Jackson County commissioners able to lead prayers at public meetings | Michigan Radio
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6th Circuit ruling upheld, Jackson County commissioners able to lead prayers at public meetings

Jul 11, 2018

Credit U.S. Supreme Court

Members of Jackson County’s Board of Commissioners will officially be allowed to lead prayers at public meetings. That’s after the Supreme Court denied a request to review the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ previous decision, which ruled in favor of the county.  

The plaintiff, Peter Bormuth, is a self-proclaimed Pagan and Animist. He argues that commissioner-led Christian prayers violate the First Amendment.

Bormuth began litigation against the county in 2013. When U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the county in 2015, he appealed to the Sixth Circuit. The original three-judge panel ruled in support of Bormuth, but that decision was later vacated when 15 Sixth Circuit judges ruled on the issue, the majority siding with Jackson County.

Bormuth filed a certiorari, or a writ requesting the Supreme Court to review that decision, but on June 28th the Court officially denied his request.

The Court ruled 5-4 on a similar case, Greece v. Galloway, in 2014. The majority opinion stated that legislators could bring in religious figures to lead prayers at public meetings as long as they were not discriminating against other religions or forcing attendees to participate in the prayer.

The First Liberty Institute has been representing Jackson County since the case was first appealed to the Sixth Circuit. Jeremy Dys is the Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty. He explains how the precedent from Greece v Galloway differed from the Jackson County case, saying, “Lawmakers can hire a chaplain to lead the prayer before their meetings. They could have a volunteer from the church across the street in Jackson County to come in and lead the prayers for the invocations. The question on appeal was whether or not the lawmakers themselves could do that.”

On the same day that the Supreme Court denied Bormuth’s request, they refused to hear a similar case from North Carolina, Rowan County v. Lund. The last ruling on that case from the Fourth Circuit ruled that commissioner-led Christian prayers at public meetings were unconstitutional. By denying both of these cases, the Court leaves two different precedents in place in states that fall within the Fourth and Sixth Circuits. They did not give an explanation for denying both requests, which Dys says is standard of the Court. Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Neil Gorsuch, dissented to the Court’s denial of Rowan County v. Lund, pointing out this discrepancy.

“State and local lawmakers can lead prayers in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan, but not in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, or West Virginia,” Thomas writes. “This Court should have stepped in to resolve this conflict.”

Dys says that First Liberty is also representing Rowan County and they are considering renewing their request to the Court, though they have not made any firm decision yet.

The next Jackson County Board of Commissioners meeting will be held July 24th. According to Dys, the commissioners plan on leading a prayer at future meetings.