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Federal appeals court upholds city's pre-meeting prayers

The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit [official website] on Tuesday upheld the constitutionality [opinion, PDF] of a Florida city commission's pre-meeting prayers, in turn rejecting an atheist group's argument that such a public forum practice illegally promoted Christianity. Although the group, Atheists of Florida, Inc. (AOF) [advocacy website], argued that opening the meetings of the Lakeland City Commission (LCC) [official website] with a sectarian prayer violated the Establishment Clause [Cornell LII backgrounder] of the First Amendment [text] and Article I of the Florida Constitution [text], Judge Arthur Lawrence Alarcon affirmed, on similar and alternative grounds, an earlier ruling by the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida [official website] that granted summary judgement [order] for LCC. First, the court held that AOF failed to show that the March 2010 Florida resolution adopting the practice resulted in advancing Christianity over all other religions simply because the persons selected to open meetings included sectarian references in their prayers. Second, the court held that it lacked proper jurisdiction to hear the case because AOF's challenge to LCC's pre-resolution speaker selection as unconstitutional was a moot issue. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the district court was likewise without jurisdiction to hear AOF's claim, and therefore remanded the mootness issue back to the lower court.

Public prayer has generated a substantial amount of controversy over the last several years. In January 2012 the US Supreme Court [official website] declined to review [JURIST report] a similar case concerning whether a county board of commissioners in North Carolina violated the Establishment Clause by opening their public meetings with prayers. In August 2011 JURIST contributor John Whitehead noted [JURIST comment] that the decision by the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] contradicted precedent establishing that public officials beginning meetings with a prayer is constitutionally permissible. In April of that year, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit [official website] dismissed [JURIST report] a constitutional challenge to the National Day of Prayer (NDP) [official website]. The Seventh Circuit's decision overturned a ruling [JURIST report] by the US District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin [official website] that the NDP was an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion.

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