A federal court of appeals is siding with an animist who said members of a public board in Michigan violated the First Amendment by opening monthly meetings with Christian prayers.
The Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the district court in a 2-to-1 ruling on Wednesday. The appellate court said the Jackson County Board of Commissioners ran afoul of the establishment clause because the prayers were coercive, exclusively Christian and burdened residents who refused to take part in them.
“Accordingly, we hold that the Board of Commissioners’ use of prayer to begin its monthly meetings violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause,” Judge Karen N. Moore wrote in the majority opinion. “The prayer practice is well outside the tradition of historically tolerated prayer, and it coerces Jackson County residents to support and participate in the exercise of religion.”
The lawsuit was brought by Peter Bormuth, a Jackson County resident and self-described pagan and animist who attributes conscious life to ordinary objects and natural phenomena. His religious practices include worshipping the sun and moon, ancestral spirits and the earth.
All nine members of the Jackson County Board are Christians.
Mr. Bormuth regularly attended board meetings out of concern for the environment. He said the board’s practice of beginning each meeting with a prayer — including calling for attendees to “rise” and “assume a reverent position” — was a coercive and unconstitutional imposition of religious exercise.
The animist also accused the board of treating him disparagingly because he refused to take part in the prayer.
At one meeting a board member called Mr. Bormuth a “nitwit” and said his lawsuit was “political correctness nonsense.” Another commissioner said the lawsuit was an “attack on Christianity and Jesus Christ, period.”
Mr. Bormuth also accused the board of refusing to nominate him to its Solid Waste and Planning Committee, even though he was confident he was “the most qualified applicant,” because of his refusal to participate in the prayers.
The district court originally ruled Mr. Bormuth’s complaint was “hypersensitive.” The lower court said no one forced him to participate in the prayers, and he could have easily left the room if he felt uncomfortable.
But Judge Moore said the prayer put Christianity in “a privileged position” over other faiths.
Secular groups praised the 6th Circuit’s decision.
“Government should not be in the business of promoting any religion or imposing it on its citizens,” Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, said in a statement. “When government officials give prayers that are exclusively Christian, that tells non-Christians that they are second-class citizens.”
Judge Richard A. Griffin dissented from the majority opinion. He pointed out that legislative bodies ranging from local school boards to the U.S. Congress have regularly engaged in prayer since the country’s founding in a tradition upheld by the Supreme Court.
“Contrary to today’s decision, the Supreme Court has ruled twice that legislative prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution,” Judge Griffin wrote.
Furthermore, he said each member of the Jackson County Board delivered the prayer on a rotating basis regardless of faith.
“With each election, the people of Jackson County may elect a Commissioner who is Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Mormon, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox Christian, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Quaker, Amish, Mennonite, Pentecostal, ‘Animist,’ Pagan, Atheist, Agnostic, and so on,” Judge Griffin wrote. “The religious faiths of the periodically elected officials — including Jackson County’s Commissioners — are dynamic, not static.”