The issue of invocations prior to public meetings has taken an encouraging turn. As you may recall, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in July that the Rowan County Commissioners’ practice of holding invocations led by commissioners prior to its meetings was unconstitutional. This week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, hearing a case from Michigan that’s very similar to the Rowan County case, found the opposite. The 15-judge panel ruled in Bormuth v. Jackson County that the prayers by the commissioners are consistent with those considered in the Supreme Court’s previous rulings on legislative prayer, and therefore do not violate the Establishment Clause. Historically, when there are conflicting rulings by U.S. Courts of Appeal, they are often resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The High Court has twice rejected the argument that prayers before legislative sessions were unconstitutional. The Sixth Court referred to those rulings numerous times in their decision on Bormuth v. Jackson County this week. “Since the founding of our Republic, Congress, state legislatures, and many municipal bodies have commenced legislative sessions with a prayer. Consonant with this historical practice, defendant Jackson County Board of Commissioners opens its public meetings with a prayer that is generally solemn, respectful, and reflective. Plaintiff Peter Bormuth claims that this custom violates the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution because the Commissioners themselves offer the invocations. We disagree.” […] “The [U.S. Supreme] Court held that ‘the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an “establishment” of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.’”
According to Ken Klukowski, First Liberty Senior Counsel, who represents Jackson County Commissioners in Michigan and Rowan County Commissioners in North Carolina, “This 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.”
Since the Rowan County ruling in July, the Rowan County Commissioners and their legal counsel have been considering an appeal of that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.