April 2023 Church & State Magazine - April 2023

Supreme Court Declines To Hear Fla. Case Challenging City’s Prayer Vigil


The U.S. Supreme Court announced March 6 that it will not hear a case involving an official prayer vigil hosted by the police chief of Ocala, Fla.

 The event 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 local residents. A federal court ruled in favor of the residents, but members of the Ocala City Council argued that the high court should reconsider the case in light of a June ruling by the court that allowed a public high school football coach to pray on the field after games, even though accompanied by students.

Although the court declined to hear the case, Justices Clarence M. Thomas and Neil Gorsuch wrote statements arguing that citizens should have no legal right to challenge events like this and that people who are offended by them should just look away.

“Really, most every governmental action probably offends somebody,”  Gorsuch wrote. “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.”

Photo of Justice Gorsuch walking outside wearing a scarf.

Gorsuch: Just look away (Photo by Melina Mara – Pool/Getty Images)

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, criticized the two conservative justices. 

“This country was founded on the separation of church and state,” Laser said in a statement. “That principle is a bedrock of our democracy and essential for equality. The City of Ocala blatantly violated this principle and its residents’ religious freedom by promoting certain religious beliefs. The state must never use its power to impose religion on its citizens.” (City of Ocala, Fla. v. Rojas)

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