U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Hear Florida City’s Challenge to Atheist Lawsuit

The Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS) declined to hear a Florida city’s challenge to a lawsuit filed by atheists that accuses city officials of violating the constitutional limits on government involvement in religion. The suit stems from a prayer vigil that followed gun violence that wounded three children.

The justices declined to hear the appeal by the city of Ocala of a lower court’s ruling. The lower court endorsed the right of the plaintiffs and was backed by the American Humanist Association. The plaintiffs sued over legal harms they maintain they sustained while attending the 2014 vigil, at which police officers chaplains in uniform preached a Judeo-Christian message.

The plaintiffs accused the city of Ocala of violating the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s “establishment clause.” The clause restricts governmental involvement in religion. Ocala had petitioned the justices to reject the claim that the plaintiffs had legally sustained recognizable injuries as “offended observers” of religious messages.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the majority decision to turn down the appeal and expressed “serious doubts” about the lawsuits of offended observers’ legitimacy.

“Offended observer standing appears to warp the very essence of the judicial power vested by the Constitution,” wrote Thomas, and added that “federal courts are authorized ‘to adjudge the legal rights of litigants in actual controversies,’ not hurt feelings.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch, also a conservative, wrote separately that he agreed with denying the appeal but doubted that the plaintiffs had the legal standing to sue.

City officials in Ocala helped conduct and organize the one-hour-long prayer vigil that followed a series of shootings that left three children struck by a stray bullet. The police department of Ocala posted a letter on its Facebook page, co-signed by the police chief and an individual associated with a local Baptist church, that urged “fervent prayer” and promoted the event to help reduce crime in the community.

Police chaplains “preached Judeo-Christian religion to the crowd in a style consistent with revivalist and evangelical religion” at the vigil, and “participated in religious worship” and prompted the attendees to participate in “responsive chanting,” wrote the plaintiffs in court documents.

American Humanist Association cheers SCOTUS decision to deny appeal

The American Humanist Association, which according to its website, seeks “to bring about a progressive society where being good without a god is an accepted and respected way to live life,” sued in federal court along with several of its members. However, the lawsuit has been narrowed to two plaintiffs, Art Rojas and Lucinda Hale, and a single defendant, the city of Ocala.

Sunil Panikkath, the organization’s president, cheered the court’s decision to deny the appeal by the city.

“Opponents to the separation of religion and government continue their anti-democratic agenda in their attempts to obliterate the line between church and state; our work defending that separation becomes ever more important to ensure the religious freedom of all Americans,” said Panikkath.

In 2018, a judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded monetary damages of $1 per plaintiff. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is Atlanta-based, threw out the judgment in response to a 2022 Supreme Court ruling that broadened religious rights in the case of a public high school football coach in Washington state who was suspended for refusing to stop leading Christian prayers on the field after games, which players attended.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeal found that one of the plaintiffs, Hale, had the standing to sue because he received a legally recognizable injury. Hale’s argument focused on her claim that the city injured her by excluding atheists like her from participating in the vigil by favoring religion and focusing exclusively on prayer.

A spokesperson for the American Center for Law and Justice, representing the city of Ocala, said, “The case continues in trial court, and we will continue to litigate.