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Case Background

The tradition of legislative invocations has been in place in America since the nation’s earliest days, and the Supreme Court has also upheld the practice in two important cases: Marsh v. Chambers (1983), which upheld invocations by a chaplain who was an officer of the legislature and paid with public funds, and most recently in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014), which upheld the ability of the town of Greece, New York, to open its town board meetings with an invocation offered by clergy.

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners, which opens its meetings each month with an invocation offered by one the commissioners, falls squarely within the American historical tradition of legislative invocations. The commissioners who offer invocations choose voluntarily to do so. They offer the invocations on a rotating basis and are free to act according to their own consciences, whether that means delivering an invocation or offering a moment of silence. To further solemnize the occasion, those in attendance are also invited to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Peter Bormuth, a local activist who had attended some of the commission’s meetings, sued Jackson County in 2013. His lawsuit argued that the legislative invocations violated the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

The federal district court judge who heard the case ruled in favor of Jackson County. The district court judge stated that “Bormuth’s subjective sense of affront” was “insufficient to sustain an Establishment Clause violation.”

However, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit later overturned the district court’s ruling 2-1 in favor of Mr. Bormuth. Importantly, the lone dissenting judge—who would have ruled in favor of Jackson County—believed that the majority’s opinion contradicted both the First Amendment and Supreme Court precedent.

After this decision, the Sixth Circuit decided, in a rare move, to rehear the case en banc, which means the case would be reviewed by a full panel of 15 judges of the Sixth Circuit.

Commissioners’ Rights Upheld

First Liberty Institute stepped in to represent Jackson County after the Sixth Circuit ruling against the commissioners’ legislative invocations. First Liberty represented Jackson County in the en banc rehearing on June 14, 2017.

On September 6, 2017, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the decision of a federal district court judge and ruled that the Jackson County Board of Commissioners may open its meetings with invocations.

“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,” said Ken Klukowski, First Liberty Senior Counsel.

First Liberty also represents the commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina (Lund v. Rowan County), whose case was heard en banc in March 2017 before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In July 2017, the Fourth Circuit ruled against the Rowan County commissioners in a split 10-5 vote.

First Liberty is currently considering an appeal of the Rowan County decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Press Release
For Immediate Release: September 6, 2017

Contact: Lacey McNiel, media@firstliberty.org

Direct: 972-941-4453

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Rules in Favor of Invocations
Court affirms commissioners’ practice of participating in over two-hundred-year-old tradition of invocations before government meetings.


CINCINNATI, Ohio—The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sitting en banc affirmed the decision of a federal district court judge and ruled today that the Board of Commissioners in Jackson County, Michigan—represented by First Liberty Institute—may open its meetings with invocations. The commissioners offer invocations on a rotating basis and are free to act according to their own consciences by delivering either an invocation or offering a moment of silence.

“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 Marsh v. Chambers (1983) and Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014), the U.S. Supreme Court found invocations before government meetings to be fully consistent with the Constitution and an important part of America’s history and heritage.

First Liberty also represents the commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina (Lund v. Rowan County), whose case was heard en banc in March 2017 before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. In July, the Fourth Circuit ruled against the Rowan County commissioners in a split 10-5 vote. First Liberty is currently considering an appeal of the Rowan County decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

To learn more, visit FirstLiberty.org/Jackson.

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About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans. To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.

 

To download this press release, please click here.


First Liberty Press Release — 6/14/2017