Sixth Circuit Upholds Prayer to Open County Board Meetings

This is yet another legislative-prayer case: analyzing whether it is a violation of the separation of church and state (the Establishment Clause) to begin a public meeting with prayer.

Jackson County, Michigan–just west of Ann Arbor in southeast Michigan–opens its monthly meetings of its nine-member Board of Commissioners with prayer. The prayers are Commissioner-led and often Christian in tone. They frequently “ask ‘God,’ ‘Lord,’ or ‘Heavenly Father’ to provide the Commissioners with guidance as they go about their business.

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The Board of Commissioners for Jackson County, Michigan.

Peter Bormuth is a self-professed Pagan who sued the county, claiming that the Board’s pre-meeting prayers violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. According to him, the prayers make him feel like he’s in church, and that he’s being forced to worship Jesus Christ if he wants to attend the Board’s meetings. He admitted, however, that he does not participate in the prayers.

The full 15-judge Sixth Circuit upheld the Board’s practice and ruled against Bormuth in a 9-6 decision. The Court found that prayer led by public officials is not per se unconstitutional. It held that the Board was not “coercive” in asking the public to rise and participate in the prayers, instead characterizing this as “reflexive” and “commonplace,” and not indicative of a “pattern and practice of coercion.”

The long and short of it is that every legislative-prayer case is going to be fact- and content-specific. This decision appears to conflict with the Fourth Circuit’s opinion in a very similar case decided earlier this year. Thus, it appears increasing likely that the Supreme Court will have to weigh in sooner rather than later. We’ll definitely keep you updated.

Case: Bormuth v. Cty. of Jackson, No. 15-1869 (6th Cir. Sept. 6, 217) (en banc) (opinion here)

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