Watch Kelly Shackelford explain what this ruling means for America
On Wednesday, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that the Board of Commissioners themselves in Jackson County, Michigan may open meetings with invocations. The decision—in which First Liberty represented commissioners of Jackson County, Michigan—comes from a court that is one level below the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Jackson County 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.
A private citizen had objected to the invocations and filed a lawsuit. First Liberty represented the commissioners. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State had argued before the Court against the county commissioners’ invocation, and the ACLU submitted a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the invocations.
A federal district court ruled in favor of the commissioners. The plaintiff appealed to the Sixth Circuit, and a three-judge panel of the court ruled against the commissioners. First Liberty and its volunteer attorney firm appealed to the full court of 15 judges, who reversed the three-judge panel with this week’s ruling.
PART OF A BIGGER DRAMA
“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.
And that settled the question . . . for a few months. Quickly, lawsuits were brought against invocations in Jackson County, Michigan and Rowan County, North Carolina, with technical legal issues cited by plaintiffs to get around the Chambers and Galloway decisions.
So continuing the American history and heritage of invocations before public meetings is still at risk. But things may be moving toward a climax.
WILL THE TRAIL END AT THE SUPREME COURT?
First Liberty also represents the commissioners in the Rowan County case (Lund v. Rowan County), which has taken a different direction than Jackson County.
Rowan County 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.
So the Sixth Circuit has ruled in favor of invocations before government meetings. The Fourth Circuit has ruled the other way. That sets up a “circuit split” that often results in a resolution at the U.S. Supreme Court. First Liberty is currently considering an appeal of the Rowan County decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is not known at this time if the plaintiffs in the Jackson County case will appeal.
Nevertheless, the potential for a U.S. Supreme Court case on this important issue is a very real possibility.
Kelly Shackelford, President & CEO of First Liberty, said, “All supporters of First Liberty should be encouraged by the Jackson County victory. It was their support that allowed us to give a high level of defense in our effort to keep this important aspect of American history from being lost.”
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