[JURIST] A Michigan county's practice of offering Christian-only prayers at public board meetings is unconstitutional [opinion, PDF], the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit [official website] ruled Wednesday. Peter Bormuth filed suit after attending the county's Board of Commissioners meeting. The appeals court ruled that the lower court was wrong in rejecting Bormuth's argument that the practice of the commissioners offering the prayer "coerced residents to support and practice in the exercise of religion." In analyzing the actions of the board through the Establishment Clause [JURIST backgrounder] of the First Amendment [text], the court stated that this act by the board is considered "government speech" and that it is unconstitutional as it puts Christianity above other religions:
Accordingly, we hold that the Board of Commissioners' use of prayer to begin its monthly meetings violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. 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 appeals court reversed the summary judgment and remanded to the lower court for further proceedings.
The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [JURIST report] in 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that the practice of opening town meetings with a prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause. The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had ruled [JURIST report] in 2012 that the New York town's practice amounted to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. In an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court reversed that ruling, finding a "permissible ceremonial purpose." In contrast, the Supreme Court of Canada [official website] ruled [judgment, PDF] in 2015 that elected officials do not have the right [JURIST report] to open municipal council meetings with a prayer.