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Religious News

U.S. Supreme Court rebuffs Florida city’s challenge to atheist lawsuit

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a Florida city’s bid to fend off a lawsuit by atheists accusing officials of violating constitutional limits on government involvement in religion by staging a prayer vigil following gun violence that wounded three children.

The justices turned away an appeal by the city of Ocala of a lower court’s ruling endorsing the right of the plaintiffs, backed by the American Humanist Association, to sue over legal harms they said they sustained attending the 2014 vigil in which uniformed police chaplains preached a Judeo-Christian message. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment “establishment clause” restricts governmental involvement in religion.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the decision to deny the case.

Ocala city officials helped organize and conduct the prayer vigil held in response to a series of shootings in which three children were struck by stray bullets. The Ocala Police Department on its Facebook page posted a letter co-signed by the police chief and an activist affiliated with a local Baptist church that promoted the vigil and urged “fervent prayer” to help reduce crime in the community.

At the prayer vigil, police chaplains in Ocala Police Department uniforms “preached Judeo-Christian religion to the crowd in a style consistent with revivalist and evangelical religion,” “participated in religious worship” and encouraged the crowd to engage in “responsive chanting,” according to the plaintiffs’ filings in the case.

The American Humanist Association, which on its website says it seeks “to bring about a progressive society where being good without a god is an accepted and respected way to live life,” and several of the group’s members sued in federal court. The suit accused Ocala of violating the establishment clause.

The plaintiffs in court papers said the police department’s involvement in the prayer vigil “was coercive in that it pressured community members to accept theistic religious views” and treated religion non-believers as “outsiders and second-class citizens.”

A judge in 2018 ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded them nominal monetary damages of $1 each. The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last July threw out that judgment in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June 2022 expanding religious rights in the case of a Washington state public high school football coach who had been suspended for refusing to stop leading Christian prayers with players on the field after games.

But the 11th Circuit decided that at least one of the plaintiffs, Lucinda Hale, had proper standing to sue because the prayer vigil had given rise to a legally recognizable injury. The city then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hale has argued that by violating the establishment clause the city injured her by favoring religion and excluding atheists like her from participating in the hour-long vigil focused exclusively on prayer. The case has been narrowed to two plaintiffs, Hale and Art Rojas, and a single defendant, the city.

Ocala in its appeal urged the justices to reject the claim that the plaintiffs, as offended observers of religious messages, had sustained legally recognizable injuries. The city said the plaintiffs’ legal position was undermined by their voluntary attendance at the prayer vigil.

The conservative-majority Supreme Court in recent years has chipped away at the wall separating church and state, eroding American legal traditions aimed at barring government officials from promoting any particular faith.

The city was represented by attorney Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice conservative Christian legal group, who helped defend former President Donald Trump in one of his two U.S. Senate impeachment trials.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)


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