The U.S. Supreme Court announced yesterday that it won’t hear a case involving an official prayer vigil hosted by the police chief of Ocala, Fla.
A lower federal court ruled in favor of city residents who objected to the event, which took place in 2014 in response to some violent crimes in the community. Greg Graham, who was then Ocala’s police chief, asked religious leaders to hold a prayer vigil in a downtown square to address the violence. The city helped plan the event and promoted it on official websites. Several city employees were present, including uniformed police officers.
The American Humanist Association sued on behalf of the residents. Members of the Ocala City Council hoped the Supreme Court would reconsider the case in light of a June ruling by the court that allowed a high school football coach to pray on the field after games.
That won’t be happening – at least right now. But this case, or one like it, might resurface someday because some justices are determined to take away your right to sue in cases like this.
Thomas And Gorsuch Weigh In
Yesterday, Justices Clarence M. Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch wrote statements arguing that citizens should have no legal right to challenge events like the one in Ocala.
But what if you don’t like the fact that your government is spending money, time and resources on a giant prayer rally that promotes a faith that’s alien to you? Well, you can just look away.
Seriously. That is what Thomas and Gorsuch said. Here is the quote from Gorsuch’s statement: “Really, most every governmental action probably offends somebody. No doubt, too, that offense can be sincere, sometimes well taken, even wise. But recourse for disagreement and offense does not lie in federal litigation. Instead, in a society that holds among its most cherished ambitions mutual respect, tolerance, self-rule, and democratic responsibility, an ‘offended viewer’ may ‘avert his eyes’ or pursue a political solution.”
Yes, government actions do offend a lot of people. But when those actions are shrouded in religion, when they in fact promote religion, the First Amendment provides a remedy: We can sue to put a stop to it.
Canceling The Right To Sue
If Thomas and Gorsuch have their way, that remedy will no longer exist. And if there is no enforcement mechanism, then what is to stop government officials from doing whatever they want when it comes to religion?
Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, put it bluntly: “Justices Gorsuch and Thomas’ statements suggest a willingness to silence voices who speak out against these clear constitutional violations – violations that trample the religious freedom of us all. We must not be silenced. We need a national recommitment to the separation of church and state. Our democracy depends on it.”
Indeed. It’s even fair to ask: Without the right to challenge government actions that directly violate the plain language of the First Amendment, will we even continue to be a democracy?