Federal court rules in favor of Michigan county over Christian prayers before public meetings

A federal appeals court has upheld the practice of opening public meetings with Christian prayers at a Michigan county. | Pixabay/Daniel_B_photos

A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of a Michigan county on Wednesday, allowing its board members to continue its practice of opening their meetings with Christian prayers.

In a 9–6 decision, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the elected public board of commissioners in Jackson County, Michigan did not violate the U.S. Constitution by opening monthly meetings with Christian prayers and inviting audience members to join.

The case against the county was filed by local resident Peter Bormuth, who claimed that he felt compelled to participate in religion just to speak at meetings.

James Shotwell, who serves as the chairman of the Board of Commissioners, argued that the board members just happen to be Christians, and are not favoring one faith over any others.

"While majority, if not all, of the Board of Commissioners are Christian, which they are at this time, if a different person was elected then he would have the right when his turn comes around to lead the prayer the way he feels is appropriate," he said.

In the majority opinion, Circuit Judge Richard Griffin held that the county's "religion-neutral" prayer practice was consistent with Supreme Court precedents allowing Nebraska's legislature and the upstate New York town of Greece to open session with prayer led by clergy.

Griffin also noted that the board's practice of asking the audience members to stand and assume a "reverent" position for invocations was not coercive.

"The solemn and respectful-in-tone prayers demonstrate the commissioners permissibly seek guidance to make good decisions that will be best for generations to come and express well-wishes to military and community members," Griffin wrote, as reported by Reuters.

Karen Nelson Moore, one of the dissenting judges, said that the majority was extending constitutional protections to "a practice that excludes non-Christians from the prayer opportunity and expresses disgust at people who voice a different opinion."

Bormuth, a self-described pagan and animist, had claimed that one of the nine commissioners called him a "nitwit" for objecting to the prayers and that two board members turned their backs while he spoke.

The majority noted that its decision conflicted with a July 14 ruling by the federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, which rejected a similar practice by Rowan County's Board of Commissioners in North Carolina.

Bormuth has stated that he is planning to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which considers federal appeals court splits a key criterion for taking a case.

Ken Klukowski, senior counsel for the nonprofit First Liberty Institute, which represented the board, said that the Supreme Court might take the case in light of the court split.