In a major win for religious freedom, the Board of Commissioners in Jackson County, Michigan may now open its meetings with prayer, thanks to a decision handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit on Wednesday.
Reuters reports that with a 9-6 vote, the court rejected claims by the plaintiff, Peter Bormuth, that the prayers violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause because the commissioners, all Christian, offered them.
"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.
First Liberty, the law firm representing the Jackson County commissioners, praised the decision.
"Today's decision further solidifies what the U.S. Supreme Court has now twice said: Invocations before government meetings are constitutional and an important part of our nation's history and heritage," said Ken Klukowski, Senior Counsel at First Liberty, in a statement to The Gospel Herald.
The case dates back to 2013, when Bormuth, a Jackson County resident and animist whose religious practices include worshipping the sun and moon, ancestral spirits and the earth, claimed he was made to feel like he was "in church" and forced to worship Jesus Christ before participating in Jackson County board meetings.
Bormuth argued that the board's practice of beginning each meeting with a prayer - including calling for attendees to "rise" and "assume a reverent position" - was a coercive and unconstitutional imposition of religious exercise.
He also claimed one of the nine commissioners called him a "nitwit" for objecting, while two turned their backs while he spoke.
A federal district court ruled in favor of Jackson County, but in February 2017, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned that decision, ruling 2-1 that the invocations violated the Establishment Clause.
"I'm taken aback, and a little surprised," Commission Chairman James Shotwell said in response to the ruling. "We are a Christian nation, and I believe that we open our meetings correctly."
On June 14, 2017, the Sixth Circuit reheard the case "en banc"-which means that all of the judges on the Sixth Circuit participated, and on September 6, 2017, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of the Board of Commissioners, affirming their practice of opening meetings with invocations.
On his website, Bormuth says he supports a "strict constitutional separation of church and state" and boasts about his long history of opposing "terrible laws" passed by "Christian Republicans."
"I stood outside Planned Parenthood, alone, with my sign supporting women's reproductive rights and faced down Mike Shirkey and his group of Christian anti-abortion protesters," he wrote in his bio. "I challenged Jackson County In Federal Court on their practice of delivering Christian prayers, which violates the Constitutional separation of church and state."