Americans United Wins Big In Mich. Government Prayer Case

Yesterday, a federal appeals court ruled 2-1 that county commissioners in Jackson County, Mich. – all of whom are Christian – can no longer deliver prayers that are exclusively Christian prior to their meetings.

This was a huge legislative prayer case win for Americans United in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. We filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, Bormuth v. County of Jackson, and an AU attorney argued the case.

The legal squabble came about after Peter Bormuth, a Druid, challenged the prayer policy because it promoted Christianity and coerced residents to participate in the prayers. The appeals court noted in its ruling that commissioners would tell people to stand and bow their heads during prayers.

In our brief, AU successfully argued that the prayer policy was unconstitutional.

“In either case, a citizen has two options: (1) participate in a prayer that violates her conscience, or (2) risk the Commissioners’ wrath – whatever might be motivating it,” the brief read. It went on to assert that the Constitution “prohibits Jackson County from putting citizens to that choice.”

While the appeals court correctly agreed with AU’s argument that the prayer practice violated church-state separation, the case had some unfortunate consequences for Bormuth. He became a target for abuse from the commissioners. 

In its ruling, the court mentioned some disturbing tidbits about ways the commissioners singled out Bormuth publicly. 

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made the right call in Bormuth v. County of Jackson. 

In one meeting, an unnamed commissioner said that the lawsuit was an “attack on Christianity and Jesus Christ, period.” Another commissioner said Bormuth was “attacking . . . my Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”(Seems like they have a case of the “religious freedom is only applicable to my religion” bug.)

The derision continued: “The Federalist Papers, if you read them, tell me that it is your duty to disobey an illegal law. And it has taken some nitwit two hundred-and-some years to come up with an angle like this to try to deprive me or other people, of my faith, of my rights,” one commissioner said.

The court also noted that the commissioners were dismissive of Bormuth’s concerns early on, observing, “In disparaging Bormuth, the Board of Commissioners’ message is clear: residents who refuse to participate in the prayers are disfavored. Indeed, when Bormuth expressed his belief that the Board of Commissioners was violating the First Amendment during the public-comment period of the August 2013 meeting, one of the Commissioners made faces and then turned his back on Bormuth, refusing even to look at Bormuth while he spoke.”

The commissioners did themselves no favors by behaving like this. The appeals court noted in its ruling, “The Jackson County Board of Commissioners affirmatively excluded non-Christian prayer givers, and did so in an effort to control the content of prayers… 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 applauds the appeals court for ruling in favor of Bormuth. It was the right outcome for church-state separation and religious freedom. 

“Government should not be in the business of promoting any religion or imposing it on its citizens,” AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said. “When government officials give prayers that are exclusively Christian, that tells non-Christians that they are second-class citizens.”