Supreme Court Denies Petition From Florida City To Toss Atheists' First Amendment Suit Over Prayer Vigil

 March 8, 2023

On Monday, The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a Florida city's request to dismiss a lawsuit brought by atheists who say they were offended after the city held a prayer vigil following a local mass shooting. Apparently, the atheists say they were offended and felt excluded by the event held by the City of Ocala, Florida, back in 2014 after a shooting that injured several children.

As such, the City of Ocala had asked the Supreme Court to clarify whether "psychic or emotional offense allegedly caused by observation of religious messages" was sufficient to grant the atheists standing to sue, arguing that it is not. Handing the atheists a temporary win, the Supreme Court denied the city's petition. Justice Neil Gorsuch, however, explained in a statement that the lower courts now reviewing the case, should ultimately side with Ocala.

According to court documents, the case concerns two individuals, Lucinda Hale and Art Rojas, who are members of the American Humanist Association. After police organized a prayer vigil, with local religious leaders in response to a 2014 shooting, in which several children were injured, both have accused Ocala of violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment.  Court documents stated that police chaplains were praying and singing on stage while in uniform.

Claiming that the religious elements of the prayer vigil were offensive, the atheists said the event made them feel excluded. Holding that the atheists had standing to sue, were the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Ocala sought to have the Supreme Court review 11th Circuit's 2018 decision granting the atheists standing in light of the court's 2022 opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, when the Supreme Court said former football coach Joe Kennedy, had the right to lead members of his team in voluntary post game prayers.

In a statement that the atheists should lack standing to sue, Justice Gorsuch wrote-

"As this Court explained in Kennedy, the Lemon test on which the District Court relied is no longer good law," …"Moving forward, I expect lower courts will recognize the offended observer standing has no more foundation in the law than the Lemon test that inspired it. If I am wrong, the city is free to seek relief here after final judgment,"

-Justice Neil Gorsuch

Effectively stating that he agreed with Ocala's argument, that the atheists lacked standing to sue, he said the Supreme Court did not need to intervene in the case because the 11th Circuit had already vacated it to the district court, where judges will be bound by the Kennedy decision. So, essentially, the Supreme Court  decision sends the case back to play out in lower courts.

Of note is the fact that, the Lemon test required courts to consider whether the action had a secular purpose, whether the government was entangled with religion and whether the principal or primary effect of the action advanced or inhibited religion.

Arguing the Supreme Court should hear Ocala's case now and clear up the confusion about standing in cases concerning the First Amendment's establishment clause, Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, stating-

"We should reconsider this seeming aberration before it further erodes bedrock Article III restrictions on the judicial power,"

-Justice Clarence Thomas

Apparently, the case will head back to the lower court to be resolved at this point. As the system of checks and balances, even within the court system weighs in on this case, it is an amazing process to watch that which the nations’ founders have set in place that gives us all pause in their great forethought.

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals”.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.
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