U.S. Supreme Court Set to Consider Case of Prayer Vigil That Offended Atheists

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon weigh in on a case that involved a prayer vigil in a Florida city that allegedly violated the First Amendment and offended atheist residents. 

The suit comes as the court is taking a growing protective stance on religious freedom with its conservative-majority court. The Florida v. Rojas court case is scheduled for Friday. 

Oral arguments will be scheduled if four of nine justices on the court vote to hear the case. 

The Ocala, Florida, vigil was held in 2014 following a drive-by shooting that injured several children. Community leaders and the local chief of police urged locals to attend the event. 

Atheists in attendance said the city violated the separation of church and state and the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. According to reports, the atheists claimed the event was religious and made them feel disregarded.

“Uniformed police personnel preached Christianity in a revivalist style to hundreds of citizens assembled at its behest for an hour in the heart of town,” according to the brief. 

“The [respondents] were invited to attend by their own city officials and had an interest in being a part of the community and were concerned about crime. They attended but were unable to participate in any of the activity because it was all prayer,” the brief read.

The suit was filed in federal district court, where one of the respondents claimed “offended observer” status. According to reports, the judgment against the chief of police and the city of Ocala was $1 in damages.

On the other side of the country, in Washington state, the Supreme Court weighed in that a school district violated the First Amendment protections of religious freedom after a high school football coach, Joseph Kennedy, was fired for having prayer following games on the field. 

In June 2022, the court found the Constitution allows for such prayers, according to reports.

Florida case forwarded to higher courts for review

The 11th Circuit court forwarded the Florida case to district court, which would allow an “opportunity to apply…the historical practices and understandings standard endorsed” in the previous case.

The city of Ocala filed a petition with the Supreme Court to review the decision by the lower court on whether “psychic or emotional offense allegedly caused by observation of religious message [is] an injury sufficient to confer standing…including where the offended party deliberately seeks out the exposure in question,” according to a Newsmax report.

Abigail Southerland, senior litigation counsel at American Center for Law and Justice, “This is the only area of law in which ‘lower courts have recognized offended observer’ status…the Supreme Court has indicated that offended observer standing is not sufficient standing to bring an Establishment Clause case or claim.”

“I think the trend to return to an original interpretation of the Constitution, rather than to expand its application, will be helpful, hopefully, to us in this case,” added Southerland.