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Appeals court says Jackson commissioners violated Constitution with prayer

Shemaiah Telemaque/iadMedia
flickr http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

A federal appeals court says the Jackson County Commission regularly violated the U.S. Constitution by opening its meetings with a Christian prayer.

In a 2-1 ruling, a panel of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held the commission violated the Establishment Clause.  The Establishment Clause says government bodies cannot favor one religion over others.

The court noted that earlier decisions have upheld the right of legislative bodies to open meetings with a prayer. But the court said the Jackson County Commission went too far because the invocation is always a Christian prayer delivered by a member of the commission, and citizens attending the meeting are compelled to participate by standing and bowing their heads.

“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,” read the majority opinion by Judge Karen Nelson Moore.

Commission Chairman James Shotwell says the group is still deciding its next move.         

“I’m taken aback, and a little surprised,” he said. “We are a Christian nation, and I believe that we open our meetings correctly.”

The practice in Jackson County was challenged by a nature-worshiper – who says he was also denied an appointment to a county board in retaliation.


The board could ask the Sixth Circuit to reconsider the decision. It could also decide to continue appealing all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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