Court Battles

Supreme Court declines to hear Florida city’s challenge to atheists

The Supreme Court on Monday rejected a Florida city’s appeal to immediately repel a lawsuit from atheists who contend the city unconstitutionally promoted a prayer vigil following a local shooting spree.

Lower courts found that Lucinda Hale and Art Rojas had standing, meaning the legal capacity to sue, as an “offended observer” of the prayer vigil, so they could move ahead with pursuing their claims against Ocala, Fla.

Hale and Rojas, members of the American Humanist Association, accused Ocala of violating the First Amendment’s ban on state-established religion during the September 2014 event, which court documents indicate included police chaplains praying and singing on stage while in uniform.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, two of the court’s conservatives, in separate statements expressed doubts about the theory. Rejecting it would make it more difficult for plaintiffs to bring suits against governmental bodies for allegations of endorsing religion. 

Gorsuch criticized judges who have “indulged the fiction of ‘offended observer’ standing,” but he indicated the case should proceed in the lower courts before the justices intervene.

“I would allow that process to unfold,” Gorsuch wrote. “Moving forward, I expect lower courts will recognize that offended observer standing has no more foundation in the law than the Lemon test that inspired it. If I am wrong, the city is free to seek relief here after final judgment.”

Thomas similarly said he had “serious doubts” about the standing theory, but he said he would have granted the city’s appeal without waiting for the additional proceedings.

“We should reconsider this seeming aberration before it further erodes bedrock Article III restrictions on the judicial power,” he wrote.

American Center for Law & Justice, a conservative legal group representing the city that is run by lawyer Jay Sekulow, vowed to move ahead in the lower courts.

“The case continues in trial court and we will continue to litigate,” the group said in a statement.

Tags Clarence Thomas Clarence Thomas Florida Neil Gorsuch Neil Gorsuch Religion Supreme Court

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