U.S. Sixth Circuit - The FindLaw 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Court Splits on Government-Led Prayer

For a prayerful people, there sure is a lot of bickering about prayer in government chambers these days -- and in the courts of appeal in particular.

In Bormuth v. County of Jackson, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals split over the issue of county commissioners leading prayer to open their meetings. Nine justices approved; six didn't.

"[A]lthough the prayers offered before the board generally espouse the Christian faith, this does not make the practice incompatible with the Establishment Clause," Judge Richard Allen Griffin wrote for the majority. "Quite the opposite, the content of the prayers at issue here falls within the religious idiom accept by our Founders."

Sixth Circuit Divide

The majority drew a sharp dissent from Judge Karen Nelson Moore. She rebuked the other judges for their decision to extend "the constitutional protection meant for solemn and respectful prayer traditions to a practice that excludes non-Christians from the prayer opportunity and expresses disgust at people who voice a different opinion."

The Sixth Circuit division lined up this way:

Alice M. Batchelder, Julia Smith Gibbons, John M. Rogers, Jeffrey S. Sutton, Deborah L. Cook, David W. McKeague, Raymond M. Kethledge and Amul R. Thapar voted with the majority.

Chief Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. and Judges Eric L. Clay, Jane Branstetter Stranch, Bernice B. Donald and Helene N. White joined the dissent.

Fourth Circuit Split

Meanwhile, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals split 10-5 on a similar question recently. In Voelker v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an en banc panel said county commissioners violated the Constitution by giving prayers and inviting audiences to join in.

Judge Paul Niemeyer, in dissent, said the majority had misapplied the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway. In the 2014 case, the Court said the municipality did not violate the Constitution by opening its board meetings with prayer.

The argument may find its way back to the Supreme Court, which traditionally opens each session with the prayer: "God save the United States and this honorable court."

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