Sep 17, 2015

The Jackson County, Mich., Board of Commissioners has violated the First Amendment by composing and delivering Christian prayers at its public meetings and pressuring citizens to participate in those prayers, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Americans United is asking the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to put a stop to this practice. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed last night, the group notes that county commissioners have chosen to personally deliver prayers at public meetings. Because the commissioners are exclusively Christians, the prayers are also Christian. Commissioners, moreover, have instructed citizens to participate in the prayers and have disparaged those who object to the county’s prayer practice.

“There are more than 160,000 people residing in Jackson County, and I’m sure not all of them are Christians,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Jackson County’s commissioners must adopt a more inclusive policy for invocations and stop pressuring its citizens to participate in unwanted prayers.”

When Peter Bormuth, a local resident, complained and requested the right to deliver a non-Christian invocation, the board refused to adopt a nondiscriminatory policy. Bormuth then filed suit; he represents himself.

The AU brief notes that the board exploits the prayer opportunity to impose Christianity on citizens who attend its meetings. 

“The First Amendment prohibits local governments from discriminating against religious minorities, coercing citizens to participate in unwanted religious exercise, or exploiting the prayer practice to advance a particular faith,” explains the brief. “Jackson County’s practices, however, do all of these things.”

The brief also asserts that the county’s practices violate the rules set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Marsh v. Chambers and Town of Greece v. Galloway.

“The County Commissioners are supposed to be legislators, not preachers,” said Gregory M. Lipper, Americans United’s senior litigation counsel. “The commissioners may receive spiritual guidance at their meetings, but they may not exploit that opportunity to impose Christianity on their constituents.”

The brief was prepared by Lipper, Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, and Steven Gey Fellow Bradley Girard. (Girard is admitted in New York only and is supervised by Katskee, a member of the D.C. Bar.)

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.