The Jackson County Board of Commissioners opens its public meetings with an invocation delivered by one of its nine Commissioners. The Commissioners—all of whom are Christian—deliver Christian prayers, often in the name of Jesus Christ, and do not allow members of other faiths to lead the prayer. Citizens who attend the meetings in order to petition the Commissioners have little choice but to participate, even if doing so violates their conscience.
When Plaintiff Peter Bormuth rose during the public-comment period at a Jackson County meeting and asked the Commission to alter its prayer practice, at least one Commissioner turned his back on Mr. Bormuth. After Mr. Bormuth filed suit, arguing that this prayer practice violated the Establishment Clause, one of the Commissioners publicly referred to him as a “nitwit.” Another warned against allowing invited guests to give invocations for fear that they would express non-Christian religious beliefs.
The trial court ruled in favor of the County, finding it “immaterial” that all the Commissioners are Christian. Mr. Bormuth appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. In October 2015, we filed an amicus brief on Mr. Bormuth’s behalf, arguing that Jackson County’s prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause because it discriminates against religious minorities, coerces citizens into unwanted religious exercise, and advances a particular faith.
On April 19, 2016, we participated in oral argument before the Sixth Circuit, arguing in support of Mr. Bormuth's position. And on February 15, 2017, the appeals court ruled in Mr. Bormuth's favor, reversing the trial court's decision and holding that the Board of Commissioners' prayer practice does violate the Establishment Clause because it coerces residents like Mr. Bormuth to "support and participate in the exercise of religion."