DETROIT – Christian prayers publicly offered by elected officials in a Michigan county don't run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, a federal appeals court said Wednesday, rejecting a challenge by a local man who contends the practice violates the rights of people with different beliefs.
Jackson County commissioners just happen to be Christian and aren't illegally promoting one faith over another, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.
"The solemn and respectful-in-tone prayers demonstrate the commissioners permissibly seek guidance to make good decisions that will be best for generations to come and express well-wishes to military and community members," wrote Judge Richard Griffin in a 9-6 opinion.
The dispute could reach the U.S. Supreme Court. In July, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the prayer custom at meetings in Rowan County, North Carolina, was "unconstitutionally coercive."
Jackson County was sued by Peter Bormuth, a pagan, who said he's being forced to worship Jesus to participate in government. He doesn't stand during prayers. He believes his criticism likely cost him appointments on a county solid waste committee and a public works board.
One commissioner called Bormuth a "nitwit," and two turned their backs when he spoke during public comments.
In dissent, Judge Karen Nelson Moore said there is "no doubt" that some prayer traditions are constitutional under Supreme Court precedent. But commissioners went too far, she said, noting that members of the public weren't asked to lead prayers at meetings.
"The commissioners — and only the commissioners — are responsible for the prayers' content," Moore said. "And because in Jackson County the prayer content is exclusively Christian, by delivering the prayers, the commissioners are effectively endorsing a specific religion, Christianity."
Judge Jeffrey Sutton, who joined the majority opinion, said Bormuth wants to strike any reference to faith or religion from government.
"Who is coercing whom under that approach? And what are we establishing?" Sutton said.
Prayers are a "petition by the individual, not the state or city," he said. "And that's the way most people perceive them given our long history of permitting such invocations."
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