Court says Jackson County Christian-only prayer is illegal

A Michigan county's tradition of Christian-only prayers at public meetings violates the U.S. Constitution by promoting one faith over others, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

In a 2-1 decision, the court ruled in favor of a resident who was offended after he began attending Jackson County Board of Commissioners meetings in 2013 to discuss environmental issues. One commissioner called Peter Bormuth a "nitwit," and his lawsuit was panned as an attack on Jesus Christ.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said prayer invocations at public meetings can be legal. But in Jackson County, the court noted that only commissioners offered a prayer, not audience members, and the prayer was always Christian, not from other faiths.

"There is no distinction between the government and the prayer-giver: They are one and the same. The prayers, in Bormuth's words, are literally 'government speech,'" said judges Karen Nelson Moore and Jane Branstetter Stranch.

They said the exclusion of non-Christian prayers puts Christianity "in a privileged position" and "advances one faith over others."

The court reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge Marianne Battani in Detroit, who said Bormuth was being "hypersensitive."

"I'm very pleased. I can't wait to read the decision," said Bormuth, 61, a non-lawyer who has represented himself during more than three years of litigation. "One of the greatest gifts we were given by our Founding Fathers was the separation of church and state and religious freedom."

In his lawsuit, Bormuth, a pagan, said he felt compelled to stand and participate in religion in order to speak to elected officials at meetings. He believes his criticism likely cost him appointments on a county solid waste committee and a public works board.

James "Steve" Shotwell Jr., chairman of the county board, declined to comment on the decision. County Administrator Mike Overton said an invocation is offered at monthly meetings.

"Each commissioner does whatever they feel is appropriate," he said. "I haven't seen anything other than a Christian prayer or a moment of silence. We aren't trying to proselytize or anything like that."

In dissent, Judge Richard Griffin said the court's majority opinion misapplied U.S. Supreme Court decisions on public prayer. He also said Jackson County commissioners are not required to give people of other faiths an opportunity for an invocation.

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