Feb 15, 2017

A federal appeals court today ruled that county commissioners in Jackson County, Mich., may not open their meetings by personally delivering prayers that are exclusively Christian in nature.

The case, Bormuth v. County of Jackson, was brought by a local resident who is a Druid and who opposed the prayer policy. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in Peter Bormuth’s favor.

Americans United says the court made the right call.

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

The appeals court pointed out that the prayers in Jackson County were led by commissioners and that the commission chair told attendees to rise and bow their heads.

The court also noted that the commissioners singled out Bormuth for abuse after he filed the lawsuit. One commissioner, during a public meeting, called Bormuth’s lawsuit an “attack on Christianity and Jesus Christ, period.” Another called him a “nitwit.”

Noted the court, “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.”

In conclusion, the court 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 filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, which was prepared by AU’s Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, its former Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper, and its Steven Gey Fellow Bradley Girard. In addition, Lipper argued the case before the 6th Circuit.