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Supreme Court refuses to hear Florida prayer vigil dispute


Mar 6, 2023

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider making it harder for people to challenge what they allege is the government’s unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

The court rejected a dispute over a vigil by uniformed police officers in Florida that included Christian prayers after a local shooting, and conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas have written opinions suggesting they think the court should hear a similar case in the future. .

The court rejected a appeal filed by the city of Ocala seeking to dismiss a lawsuit alleging the event violated the Establishment Clause, a provision of the First Amendment to the Constitution that prohibits government endorsement of religion. The case now goes back to the lower courts, where it could be thrown out on alternative grounds.

Ocala, represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal group, asked the court to say that plaintiffs in such cases lack legal standing simply because they oppose the message being conveyed. They call it “offended bystander position” and allege that the plaintiffs knowingly attended the event with the intent to inflict legal damage. If the Supreme Court accepts Ocala’s arguments, it would be more difficult to mount Establishment Clause challenges. The court has a 6-3 conservative majority that strongly supports religious rights and has in recent cases narrowed the separation of church and state.

Thomas wrote a dissenting opinion saying he had «serious doubts» about how the lower court had decided the pending issue.

«The intervention of this court has become increasingly necessary, as time has shown that this problem is not going to go away on its own,» he added.

Gorsuch indicated that he agreed in principle with the city attorneys, though he did not object to the court rejecting the Florida case on this point.

«This court has never endorsed the notion that an ‘offended observer’ can bring an Establishing Clause claim,» he wrote.

The lawsuit was filed by the married couple Lucinda and Daniel Hale, Frances Jean Porgal and Art Rojas. Daniel Hale and Porgal have since died. The plaintiffs, who are atheists, are represented by the American Humanist Association, a group that advocates for the strict exclusion of religion from the public sphere.

The legal fight centers on the city’s response to a 2014 shooting in which several children were injured. The police chief, as well as other members of the police department, planned a vigil in the town square and used the department’s Facebook page to invite the public to attend. The plaintiffs allege that the event included Christian prayers delivered by police department chaplains.

US Magistrate Judge Philip Lammens of the Middle District of Florida ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2015, noting that the case was not about the right of individual officials to pray in public or the purpose of the vigil, which was to encourage a reduction in crime. Instead, it is about whether the city and its official «could organize and promote the vigil … where the focus of the event was prayer, which, as the law has repeatedly recognized, is fundamentally religious.»

In a June 2022 ruling, the Atlanta-based US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs had standing, but remanded the case to the district court for further review of whether there was a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The appeals court ruling came just a month after the Supreme Court’s most recent Establishment Clause decision, which ruled in favor of a public high school football coach who led prayers at the field. The court said the high school erred in disciplining the coach out of concern that his prayers constituted an endorsement of religion. The appeals court in the Ocala case said the district court judge should see if the Supreme Court ruling has anything to do with how the dispute should be resolved.