The full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Sept. 6 that a Michigan county’s policy of having its county commissioners open their meetings by delivering exclusively Christian prayers was constitutional.
The appeals court of 15 judges voted 9-6 to reverse an earlier decision of a three-judge panel that had ruled in favor of Jackson County resident Peter Bormuth. Bormuth had argued that, as a member of a minority faith who attends the commission meetings, Jackson County’s prayer policy violated his First Amendment rights.
The Jackson County Board of Commissioners opens its meetings with prayers delivered exclusively by the commissioners themselves, all of whom are Christian and typically offer prayers in the name of Jesus Christ. The commissioners also refuse to allow members of the public to give prayers to avoid hearing prayers by members of minority faiths.
After Bormuth filed the lawsuit, Bormuth v. County of Jackson, the commissioners singled him out for abuse, with one commissioner disparaging him as a “nitwit” and another calling the lawsuit an attack on “my lord and savior Jesus Christ.” The board has treated, and continues to treat, non-Christians in the county as second-class citizens based on their religious beliefs.
In the majority opinion, the court concluded that the county’s practice does not impermissibly endorse Christianity because it is possible that a non-Christian could one day be elected to the commission and then lead the board in the occasional non-Christian prayer. The majority of judges also concluded that the attacks on Bormuth did not raise constitutional red flags because they did not antagonize Bormuth on the specific basis of his religious beliefs.
Writing on behalf of six dissenting judges, Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote that the possibility that a non-Christian might be elected should not render the county’s practice constitutionally permissible, because, “Voting for representatives based on what prayers they say is precisely what the First Amendment’s religion clauses seek to prevent.”
The dissenters also explained that commissioners’ treatment of Bormuth sent a message to citizens that “residents who refuse to participate in the prayers are disfavored.” Accordingly, the dissenters concluded: “Not only is [Jackson County’s] prayer practice well outside the tradition of historically tolerated prayer, but also it coerces Jackson County residents to support and participate in the exercise of religion.”
Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, who presented arguments before the court in support of Bormuth, lamented the court’s ruling.
“When you go to a meeting of your local city or county government, you should be an equal citizen with an equal voice,” Katskee said. “That means people of all faiths, and nonbelievers, should be treated equally. This ruling clearly shows favoritism to one faith above others, which is not what this country is about. We don’t want or need any more reason for divisiveness and civil strife along religious lines – and the Constitution doesn’t allow it.”