The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from establishing a religion. In other words, church and state should be kept separate. Opponents of prayer vigils in schools and other public places have long claimed that the clause makes such gatherings unconstitutional.
In a recent case against a Florida city, the Supreme Court granted atheists a temporary victory. However, if the lower court listens to one of the justices, the group’s victory could be short-lived.
City of Ocala v. Rojas
On Monday, March 6, the Supreme Court declined to hear a petition from the city of Ocala requesting that a lawsuit filed against it by two individuals, Art Rojas and Lucinda Hale, be dismissed. The two citizens are members of the American Humanist Association, a group that promotes a progressive atheist ideology. They filed a lawsuit against the city after the police department organized a prayer vigil following a 2014 shooting that injured several children. According to the lawsuit, the city violated the Establishment Clause.
Ocala’s attorneys asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether “psychic or emotional offense allegedly caused by observation of religious messages” was sufficient for a court to grant the citizens standing. After a district court and the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit determined they did have standing, the city argued before the Supreme Court that it was insufficient.
In the case of City of Ocala v. Rojas, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote an accompanying opinion. The justice stated that the legal theory used by the lower courts to grant the case standing was no longer valid. When determining whether a government action violates the Establishment Clause, courts must consider whether it has a secular purpose, whether it inhibited or advanced religion, or if it entangled the government with religion.
According to Gorsuch, the 2022 decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District made it clear that the Lemon test was no longer valid. In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that a former football coach could lead his team in prayer as long as it was voluntary. The police department did not compel Rojas and Hale to attend the city’s prayer vigil, instead making it voluntary.
Finally, Gorsuch stated that because the lower court was bound by the Kennedy precedent, there was no reason to intervene. The majority was opposed by Justice Clarence Thomas. He wished to hear the case and wrote a five-page dissent.