Searching over 5,500,000 cases.

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Bormuth v. County of Jackson

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

September 6, 2017

Peter Carl Bormuth, Plaintiff-Appellant,
County of Jackson, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued: June 14, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan at Detroit. No. 2:13-cv-13726-Marianne O. Battani, District Judge.

         ARGUED EN BANC:

          Peter Bormuth, Jackson, Michigan, pro se.

          Allyson N. Ho, MORGAN, LEWIS & BOCKIUS LLP, Dallas, Texas, for Appellee.

          Richard B. Katskee, AMERICANS UNITED FOR SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE, Washington, D.C., Aaron D. Lindstrom, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, for Amici Curiae.

         ON BRIEF:

          Peter Bormuth, Jackson, Michigan, pro se.

          Allyson N. Ho, John C. Sullivan, MORGAN, LEWIS & BOCKIUS LLP, Dallas, Texas, Judd E. Stone, Michael E. Kenneally, MORGAN, LEWIS & BOCKIUS LLP, Washington, D.C., Hiram S. Sasser, III, Kenneth A. Klukowski, FIRST LIBERTY INSTITUTE, Plano, Texas, Richard D. McNulty, COHL, STOKER & TOSKEY, Lansing, Michigan, for Appellee.

          Richard B. Katskee, AMERICANS UNITED FOR SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE, Washington, D.C., Daniel Mach, Heather L. Weaver, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION, Washington, D.C., Daniel S. Korobkin, Michael J. Steinberg, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FUND OF MICHIGAN, Detroit, Michigan, Aaron D. Lindstrom, OFFICE OF THE MICHIGAN ATTORNEY GENERAL, Lansing, Michigan, Michael B. Kimberly, MAYER BROWN LLP, Washington, D.C., Ed R. Haden, Jason B. Tompkins, Michael P. Taunton, BALCH & BINGHAM LLP, Birmingham, Alabama, Eric C. Rassbach, Daniel H. Blomberg, THE BECKET FUND FOR RELIGIOUS LIBERTY, Washington, D.C., Benjamin L. Ellison, DORSEY & WHITNEY LLP, Wayzata, Minnesota, Bryan H. Beauman, STURGILL, TURNER, BARKER & MOLONEY, PLLC, Lexington, Kentucky, Eric D. McArthur, Benjamin Beaton, SIDLEY AUSTIN LLP, Washington, D.C., Edward L. White III, AMERICAN CENTER FOR LAW & JUSTICE, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Douglas R. Cox, GIBSON, DUNN & CRUTCHER LLP, Washington, D.C., for Amici Curiae.



          GRIFFIN, Circuit Judge.

         Since the founding of our Republic, Congress, state legislatures, and many municipal bodies have commenced legislative sessions with a prayer. Consonant with this historical practice, defendant Jackson County Board of Commissioners opens its public meetings with a prayer that is generally solemn, respectful, and reflective. Plaintiff Peter Bormuth claims that this custom violates the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution[1] because the Commissioners themselves offer the invocations. We disagree and affirm the judgment of the district court.

         In doing so, we hold that Jackson County's invocation practice is consistent with the Supreme Court's legislative prayer decisions, Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), and Town of Greece v. Galloway, 134 S.Ct. 1811 (2014), and does not violate the Establishment Clause.



         The Jackson County Board of Commissioners is an elected board of nine individuals that represents the citizens of Jackson County, Michigan. The Board opens its monthly meetings with Commissioner-led prayers. Following a call to order, the Board's Chairman typically requests Commissioners and the public alike to please "rise and assume a reverent position." Other variations include: "Everyone please stand. Please bow your heads"; "Please bow your heads and let us pray"; and "If everyone could stand and please take a reverent stance." One of the Commissioners then offers a prayer, which is followed by the Pledge of Allegiance, and then county business.

         The Board's invocation practice is facially neutral regarding religion. On a rotating basis, each elected Jackson County Commissioner, regardless of his religion (or lack thereof), is afforded an opportunity to open a session with a short invocation based on the dictates of his own conscience. Neither other Commissioners, nor the Board as a whole, review or approve the content of the invocations. There is no evidence that the Board adopted this practice with any discriminatory intent.

         Prayers offered by the Commissioners are generally Christian in tone and often ask "God, " "Lord, " or "Heavenly Father" to provide the Commissioners with guidance as they go about their business. Some prayers ask for blessings for others, from county residents suffering particular hardships, to military members, first responders serving in Jackson County, and others. The following is illustrative of the prayers at issue:

Bow your heads with me please. Heavenly father we thank you for this day and for this time that we have come together. Lord we ask that you would be with us while we conduct the business of Jackson County. Lord help us to make good decisions that will be best for generations to come. We ask that you would bless our troops that protect us near and far, be with them and their families. Now Lord we wanna give you all the thanks and all the praise for all that you do. Lord I wanna remember bereaved families tonight too, that you would be with them and take them through difficult times. We ask these things in your son Jesus's name. Amen.

         Plaintiff, a "self-professed Pagan and Animist, " objects to this practice. In his words, the "prayers are unwelcome and severely offensive to [him] as a believer in the Pagan religion, which was destroyed by followers of Jesus Christ." The distinctly Christian prayers offered by the Commissioners make him feel "like he [i]s in Church" and that "he [i]s being forced to worship Jesus Christ in order to participate in the business of County Government." He admits, however, that he does not stand and participate in the invocation portion of the meetings. Nor does he contend that the Commissioners dissuaded or attempted to dissuade him, or any other member of the public, from leaving the meeting during the prayer, arriving late, or protesting the practice after the fact.

         And protest after the fact he did. Bormuth first raised his concerns about the invocations during a public comment portion of an August 20, 2013, meeting. While Bormuth was speaking "on the issue of their sectarian prayers, " one of the Commissioners "swiveled his chair and turned his back to [Bormuth]." This "insulted and offended" him.

         Bormuth commenced this litigation on August 30, 2013. A month later, he sought appointment to Jackson County's Solid Waste Planning Committee. According to Bormuth's Amended Complaint, the Board appointed two other lesser-qualified individuals instead.

         Bormuth moved for summary judgment in December 2013. Following the Supreme Court's May 2014 decision in Town of Greece and while plaintiff's motion was pending, Jackson County moved for summary judgment. Thereafter, the magistrate judge directed Bormuth to file a revised motion addressing Town of Greece. He did so in September 2014.

         Ultimately, the magistrate judge issued a report and recommendation granting Bormuth's motion for summary judgment, denying Jackson County's motion for summary judgment, and enjoining Jackson County's invocation practice as violative of the Establishment Clause. However, the district court rejected this portion of the magistrate's report and recommendation and found Jackson County's prayer practice to be consistent with the Supreme Court's holdings in Marsh and Town of Greece. Bormuth appealed, claiming that the district court erred in concluding Jackson County's prayer practice does not violate the Establishment Clause and abused its discretion regarding two discovery matters. On appeal, a panel of our court ruled in Bormuth's favor on his Establishment Clause challenge. Bormuth v. Cty. of Jackson, 849 F.3d 266 (6th Cir. 2017). Thereafter, we sua sponte granted rehearing en banc. 855 F.3d 694 (6th Cir. 2017) (mem.).


         Before turning to the merits of the appeal, we pause to address why our factual recitation excludes certain statements made by Commissioners after Bormuth commenced this litigation (and in particular, during a November 12, 2013, meeting of a subset of the Board to review a proposed revised invocation practice in response to Bormuth's lawsuit-a proposal which was ultimately tabled). Both Bormuth and Amicus Americans United for Separation of Church and State argue that because Jackson County records by video its Board of Commissioners' meetings and makes these videos available online on its website, the videos are either in the record or are judicially noticeable for purposes of this appeal. We disagree, and refuse to fault the district court for failing to address facts that were not before it.

         "Our review of a district court's summary-judgment ruling is confined to the record." E.E.O.C. v. Ford Motor Co., 782 F.3d 753, 765 (6th Cir. 2015) (en banc). Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c), the opposing party "has an affirmative duty to direct the court's attention to those specific portions of the record upon which it seeks to rely to create a genuine issue of material fact." Chicago Title Ins. Corp. v. Magnuson, 487 F.3d 985, 995 (6th Cir. 2007) (quoting In re Morris, 260 F.3d 654, 665 (6th Cir. 2001)). "This burden to respond is really an opportunity to assist the court in understanding the facts. But if the non-moving party fails to discharge that burden-for example, by remaining silent-its opportunity is waived and its case wagered." Guarino v. Brookfield Twp. Trs., 980 F.2d 399, 405 (6th Cir. 1992). Simply stated, we "will not entertain on appeal factual recitations not presented to the district court when reviewing a district court's decision." Chicago Title Ins. Corp., 487 F.3d at 995 (internal citation omitted). And this rule applies even if an appellant proffers evidence "that might . . . show a genuine issue of material fact after the district court had granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment. . . ." Cacevic v. City of Hazel Park, 226 F.3d 483, 491 (6th Cir. 2000).

         Bormuth did not present any video evidence to the district court. One need look no further than the opinions of the magistrate judge and district judge to confirm this. Like the parties' briefing below, those opinions make no reference to the videos.

         We acknowledge that Bormuth's Amended Complaint averred that "[t]he County commissioners meetings are video recorded and posted on the Jackson County website:, " and that a transcription of the offered prayers attached to his motion for summary judgment also referred to the videos' availability. In our view, the mere reference to the videos' general availability falls well short of "direct[ing] the court's attention to those specific portions of the record upon which [Bormuth sought] to rely to create a genuine issue of material fact." Chicago Title Ins. Corp., 487 F.3d at 995 (citation omitted). Such a fleeting nonspecific reference did not require the district court to spend countless hours looking for evidence on Bormuth's behalf in response to Jackson County's motion for summary judgment by: (1) surfing the County's website to find the archive of the meetings; (2) watching the several years' worth of monthly meetings (and as but one example, the November 12, 2013, meeting alone lasted over one hour); and (3) attempting to discover facts supporting Bormuth's claim. We have never required such advocacy by a district court, even for a pro se litigant. See, e.g., Guarino, 980 F.2d at 410 (a district court is not obligated to "comb the record from the partisan perspective of an advocate for the non-moving party"); cf. Pliler v. Ford, 542 U.S. 225, 231 (2004) ("District judges have no obligation to act as counsel or paralegal to pro se litigants.").

         Furthermore, the manner in which this appeal was briefed is another reason to decline the invitation to supplement the appellate record. Bormuth's initial appellate brief was silent with respect to the videos or their content. It was only in his reply at the panel stage that he first referenced the videos and made an argument regarding the new facts contained therein. "We have consistently held, however, that arguments made to us for the first time in a reply brief are waived." Sanborn v. Parker, 629 F.3d 554, 579 (6th Cir. 2010). "[W]here the facts relied upon were presented neither to the district court nor to this Court until Plaintiff Appellant filed his reply, it would be improper for the Court to find that the district court erred in its failure to consider this newly-developed . . . argument, " Overstreet v. Lexington-Fayette Urban Cty. Gov't, 305 F.3d 566, 578 (6th Cir. 2002), especially, as it is here, "when the issue raised for the first time in reply is based largely on the facts and circumstances of the case. . . ." Wright v. Holbrook, 794 F.2d 1152, 1156 (6th Cir. 1986). The same goes for Amicus's attempt to raise this argument. See Cellnet Commc'ns, Inc. v. F.C.C., 149 F.3d 429, 443 (6th Cir. 1998) ("While an amicus may offer assistance in resolving issues properly before a court, it may not raise additional issues or arguments not raised by the parties.").

         That leaves us with Bormuth's and Amicus Americans United's requests that we take judicial notice of the videos under Federal Rule of Evidence 201. Because Jackson County admitted the accuracy of these publicly-available videos, the argument is made that this court "must take judicial notice, " because the facts within the videos "can be accurately and readily determined from sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned, " and the court has been "supplied with the necessary information." Further, the court "may take judicial notice at any stage of the proceeding." Fed.R.Evid. 201.

         Admittedly, there is some tension between these judicial notice procedures and our voluminous case law providing that "[o]ur function is to review the case presented to the district court, rather than a better case fashioned after a district court's unfavorable order." DaimlerChrysler Corp. Healthcare Benefits Plan v. Durden, 448 F.3d 918, 922 (6th Cir. 2006); cf. Sovereign News Co. v. United States, 690 F.2d 569, 571 (6th Cir. 1982) ("A party may not by-pass the fact-finding process of the lower court and introduce new facts in its brief on appeal."). However, our court recently and persuasively addressed this tension as follows:

The problem is that taking judicial notice of . . . [new evidence] now might create an evidentiary loophole through which a litigant could present a district court with one record and then ask an appellate court to reverse the district court based on another record. That would subvert the relationship between district and appellate courts. Here, the district court considered and rejected the defendants' . . . arguments. Now the defendants and amici urge reversal based in part upon facts that the defendants could have presented to the district court, but chose not to. They are not entitled to burnish the record on appeal. See Morgan Drexen, Inc. v. Consumer Fin. Prot. Bureau, 785 F.3d 684, 690 n.2 (D.C. Cir. 2015); U.S. ex rel. Wilkins v. United Health Grp., 659 F.3d 295, 303 (3d Cir. 2011).

United States v. Carpenter, No. 14-1572, Order at 2 (6th Cir. April 11, 2016); see also Conlin v. Mort. Ele. Registration Sys., Inc., 714 F.3d 355, 360 n.5 (6th Cir. 2013); United States v. Bonds, 12 F.3d 540, 552-53 (6th Cir. 1993).

         For these reasons, we decline to consider the videos presented for the first time on appeal by amicus, and then by Bormuth in his reply.[2]


         There is one more preliminary matter to resolve at the outset, relating to a discovery issue.[3] After Bormuth moved for summary judgment, he sought to depose the County's Administrator and three Commissioners. In his Rule 26 disclosures, Bormuth identified these individuals as possessing information regarding "the County Commissioner's practice of offering a prayer invocation at the opening of their regular monthly meetings, " "the practice of having children lead the Pledge of Allegiance which directly follows the invocation on the agenda, " and "Plaintiff's activities regarding the Jackson County Resource Recovery Facility." He further explained his desire to take these depositions in response to Jackson County's motion to quash, noting he wanted to discover "the practice, intent, and history of the invocations, [County Administrator] Overton's proposed [revised invocation] policy, and the role that religious interest and bias from the Commissioners has played in this case." The magistrate judge granted the motion to quash because of the pending cross-motions for summary judgment. That is, Bormuth did "not indicate[] the need for any additional discovery in order to fully respond to defendant's motion or to support his own motion as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d)." The district court agreed to quash the scheduled depositions for different reasons: under Town of Greece, "the Commissioners' private and personal attitudes toward religion or nonreligion are not relevant to the present action." It also ruled that to the extent he sought information about the Jackson County Resource Recovery Facility, it was irrelevant because Bormuth alleged an Establishment Clause claim, not an employment discrimination claim.

         We review district court decisions regarding discovery matters for abuse of discretion. See Himes v. United States, 645 F.3d 771, 782 (6th Cir. 2011). A district court abuses its discretion when it relies on clearly erroneous findings of fact, improperly applies the law, or uses an erroneous legal standard. Cummins v. BIC USA, Inc., 727 F.3d 506, 509-10 (6th Cir. 2013).

         We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion because Bormuth failed to comply with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(d). As the magistrate judge correctly recognized, Bormuth did not assert his need to take these depositions in response to Jackson County's motion for summary judgment. Under Rule 56(d), Bormuth could have opposed this motion on the grounds that he could not "present facts essential to justify its opposition." "We have observed that filing an affidavit that complies with Rule 56(d) is essential, and that in the absence of such a motion or affidavit, 'this court will not normally address whether there was adequate time for discovery.'" Unan v. Lyon, 853 F.3d 279, 292 (6th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted). Although we have set aside Rule 56(d)'s formal affidavit requirement "when a party has clearly explained its need for more discovery on a particular topic to the district court prior to or contemporaneously with the motion for summary judgment, " id. at 293 (citation omitted), there is no need to do so here.

         By twice moving for summary judgment, Bormuth conceded his position "that there [wa]s no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that . . . [he wa]s entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Thus, instead of responding to Jackson County's motion for summary judgment by arguing the need for additional discovery, Bormuth's motions for summary judgment expressly disclaimed it. See Unan, 853 F.3d at 293 (finding no abuse of discretion where, despite plaintiff's providing of some evidence about the need for additional discovery, the plaintiff subsequently moved for summary judgment). We therefore decline to sanction the "I did not have all the evidence I needed" argument made for the first time following the district court's adverse ruling on the cross-motions for summary judgment.


         We review the district court's grant of summary judgment de novo. Rogers v. O'Donnell, 737 F.3d 1026, 1030 (6th Cir. 2013). Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Although we view the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmovant, Rogers, 737 F.3d at 1030, "the plain language of Rule 56[] mandates the entry of summary judgment . . . against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).


         The Supreme Court has recognized "[w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313 (1952) (emphasis added). All three of our branches of government have officially acknowledged religion's role in American life. See Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 674-78 (1984) (detailing the "official references to the value and invocation of Divine guidance in deliberations and pronouncements of the Founding Fathers and contemporary leaders").

         Legislative prayer is part of this tradition: "The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country." Marsh, 463 U.S. at 786; see also Smith v. Jefferson Cty. Bd. of Sch. Comm'rs, 788 F.3d 580, 588 (6th Cir. 2015) ("At the state and local levels, too, legislative prayer has long been accepted." (citing Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1819)). Indeed, "the Framers considered legislative prayer a benign acknowledgment of religion's role in society." Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1819 (emphasis added). It "has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of 'God save the United States and this honorable Court' at the opening of [the Supreme Court's (and Sixth Circuit's)] sessions." Id. at 1825 (Kennedy, J.). That tradition includes offering prayers, even those that reflect "beliefs specific to only some creeds, " that "seek peace for the Nation, wisdom for its lawmakers, and justice for its people, values that count as universal and that are embodied not only in religious traditions, but in our founding documents and laws." Id. at 1823 (Majority Op.). With this historical grounding, it comes as no surprise that the Supreme Court has twice approved the practice of legislative prayer as consistent with the Framers' understanding of the Establishment Clause. Because these cases shape our inquiry, we examine Marsh and Town of Greece in detail.


         The Supreme Court first rejected an Establishment Clause challenge to legislative prayer in Marsh. That case examined the Nebraska Legislature's practice of opening its sessions with a prayer by its chaplain. The salient facts of Nebraska's practice included that the chaplain was of only one denomination (Presbyterian); the Legislature selected the chaplain for sixteen consecutive years and paid him with public funds; and the chaplain gave prayers "in the Judeo-Christian tradition." 463 U.S. at 793.

         In rejecting the claim that Nebraska's invocation practice violated the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court emphasized legislative prayer's deep historical roots: "From colonial times through the founding of the Republic and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom." Id. at 786. Notable to the Court was how the drafters of the Establishment Clause embraced this practice. In 1774, the Continental Congress "adopted the traditional procedure of opening its session with a prayer offered by a paid chaplain." Id. at 787. And in one of its "early items of business, " the First Congress "adopted the policy of selecting a chaplain to open each session with prayer" and "authorized the appointment of paid chaplains" just three days before it approved the language of the First Amendment. Id. at 787-88.

         Based on this "unique, " "unambiguous and unbroken history, " the Court held that "the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an 'establishment' of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country." Id. at 791- 792. Stated a different way, "[c]learly the men who wrote the First Amendment Religion Clause did not view paid legislative chaplains and opening prayers as a violation of that Amendment, for the practice of opening sessions with prayer has continued without interruption ever since that early session of Congress." Id. at 788.

         That the Nebraska Legislature selected a chaplain of the same denomination for sixteen consecutive years was of no moment: "Absent proof that the chaplain's reappointment stemmed from an impermissible motive, " one could not "perceive any suggestion that choosing a clergyman of one denomination advances the beliefs of a particular church." Id. at 793. Nor was it material that public funds paid for the chaplain, given that the Continental Congress did the same. Id. at 794. And finally, the Supreme Court cautioned against the judiciary "embark[ing] on a sensitive evaluation or . . . pars[ing] the content of a particular prayer." Id. at 795. That is, "[t]he content of the prayer is not of concern to judges where . . . there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief." Id. at 794-95.


         Marsh is widely viewed as "carving out an exception to the [Supreme] Court's Establishment Clause jurisprudence . . . because it sustained legislative prayer without subjecting the practice to any of the formal tests that have traditionally structured this inquiry." Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1818 (citation and quotation marks omitted). This includes the generally applicable three-part Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 614 (1971), test for which Bormuth advocates. See, e.g., Am. Civil Liberties Union of Ohio v. Capitol Square Review & Advisory Bd., 243 F.3d 289, 305-06 (6th Cir. 2001) (en banc); accord Smith, 788 F.3d at 589-90.

         Unfortunately, dicta in the Marsh opinion led to judicial confusion regarding its holding. This arose from a footnote in which the Court explained the "Judeo-Christian" nature of the prayers:

[Chaplain] Palmer characterizes his prayers as "nonsectarian, " "Judeo Christian, " and with "elements of the American civil religion." Although some of his earlier prayers were often explicitly Christian, Palmer removed all references to Christ after a 1980 complaint from a Jewish legislator.

463 U.S. at 793 n.14 (internal citations omitted). In County of Allegheny v. A.C.L.U., 492 U.S. 573 (1989), a case involving a crèche placed on the steps of a county courthouse, the Court drew a distinction between sectarian and nonsectarian references based upon this footnote. Id. at 603. The nonsectarian reference in Marsh, as "recast[]" by County of Allegheny, Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1821, led some courts, including our own, to conclude that the constitutionality of ceremonial prayer turned upon content neutrality. See Stein v. Plainwell Cmty. Sch., 822 F.2d 1406, 1410 (6th Cir. 1987); see also Rubin v. City of Lancaster, 710 F.3d 1087, 1094 n.6 (9th Cir. 2013) (collecting cases). The Supreme Court corrected this error in Town of Greece v. Galloway.


         In Town of Greece, the town council invited local ministers to give invocations before each town board meeting. 134 S.Ct. at 1816. The town permitted any person of any faith to give the invocation, did not review the prayers in advance, and did not provide any guidance as to tone or content. Id. Although some had a "distinctly Christian idiom, " and for eight years only Christian ministers gave prayers, upon complaint of such pervasive themes, the town expressly invited persons of other faiths to deliver the prayer. Id. at 1816-17. Contending that the Establishment Clause mandated that legislative prayers be "inclusive and ecumenical" to a "generic God, " some town residents sued. Id. at 1817.

         In reversing the Second Circuit's decision that Greece's practice violated the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court again emphasized the unique nature of legislative prayer: "legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society." Id. at 1818. Purposeful prayers seeking to solemnly bind legislators are consistent with our tradition where the prayer givers "ask their own God for blessings of peace, justice, and freedom that find appreciation among people of all faiths. That a prayer is given in the name of Jesus, Allah, or Jehovah, or that it makes passing reference to religious doctrines, does not remove it from that tradition. These religious themes provide particular means to universal ends." Id. at 1823. Most importantly, history teaches that these solemn prayers "strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion." Id. They are permissible because "[o]ur tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith." Id. This tradition extends not just to state and federal legislatures, but also to local deliberative bodies like city councils. Id. at 1819; see also Am. Humanist Ass'n v. McCarty, 851 F.3d 521, 527 (5th Cir. 2017) (applying Town of Greece to prayers before school boards).[4]

         Accordingly, the Supreme Court in Town of Greece directed that a court's "inquiry . . . must be to determine whether the prayer practice [at issue] fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures, " and held that Greece's did. 134 S.Ct. at 1819. First, the Court rejected the notion that Marsh permits only generic prayers, abrogating County of Allegheny and overruling decisions to the contrary. Id. at 1820-24. That is, "Marsh nowhere suggested that the constitutionality of legislative prayer turns on the neutrality of its content." Id. at 1821. Marsh revolved not on espousement of "generic theism, " but rather on the "history and tradition" showing prayer-even one that is explicitly Christian in tone-"in this limited context could coexist with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom." Id. at 1820 (citation and alteration omitted). Requiring nonsectarian prayers "would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town's current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact." Id. at 1822. Put differently, once the government has "invite[d] prayer into the public sphere, " it "must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian." Id. at 1822-23. Nonetheless, the Court acknowledged that there are limits to the prayers' content to fit within our historical tradition:

The relevant constraint derives from its place at the opening of legislative sessions, where it is meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation's heritage. Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function. If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort.
* * *
Prayer that reflects beliefs specific to only some creeds can still serve to solemnize the occasion, so long as the practice over time is not "exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief."

Id. at 1823 (quoting Marsh, 463 U.S. at 794-95).

         The Supreme Court in Town of Greece had little trouble finding the invocation prayers were in keeping with our tradition. Id. at 1824. Though invoking Jesus and other Christian references, the prayers involved "universal themes" such as celebrating the changing of the seasons or calling for a "spirit of cooperation." Id. To be sure, some prayers strayed from these themes, with one condemning "objectors [to the prayer practice] as a minority who are ignorant of the history of our country" and another "lament[ing] that other towns did not have Godfearing leaders." Id. (quotation marks omitted). But these remarks did not "despoil a practice that on the whole reflects and embraces our tradition." Id. That is, "[a]bsent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation. Marsh . . . requires an inquiry into the prayer opportunity as a whole, rather than into the contents of a single prayer." Id.

         The Court also rejected the claim that the town violated the Establishment Clause by inviting predominantly Christian ministers to lead the prayer, noting that the town made reasonable efforts to identify all congregations within its borders and represented that it would welcome a prayer by anyone who wished to give one. Id. Moreover, the town's composition of nearly all Christians did not "reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths. So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing." Id.

         Next, the Supreme Court addressed the petitioner's claim "that the setting and conduct of the town board meetings create social pressures that force nonadherents to remain in the room or even feign participation in order to avoid offending the representatives who sponsor the prayer and will vote on matters citizens bring before the board." Id. at 1820. Justice Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, analyzed coercion broadly in the context of the "subtle coercive pressures" the audience might feel while listening to the prayer. He emphasized that "[t]he inquiry remains a fact-sensitive one that considers both the setting in which the prayer arises and the audience to whom it is directed, " and "must be evaluated against the backdrop of historical practice." Id. at 1825. (Kennedy, J.). Notably, Justice Kennedy applied the following presumption: "the reasonable observer is acquainted with this tradition and understands that [legislative prayer's] purposes are to lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens, not to afford government an opportunity to proselytize or force truant constituents into the pews." Id. It is the "lawmakers themselves, " not the public, who are the "principal audience for these invocations" as they "may find that a moment of prayer or quiet reflection sets the mind to a higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing." Id. "For members of town boards and commissions, who often serve part-time and as volunteers, ceremonial prayer may also reflect the values they hold as private citizens. The prayer is an opportunity for them to show who and what they are without denying the right to dissent by those who disagree." Id. at 1826. And in concluding that "legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate, " Justice Kennedy emphasized that "[a]dults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum, especially where, as here, any member of the public is welcome in turn to offer an invocation reflecting his or her own convictions." Id. at 1826-27.

         In one paragraph, the three Justices discussed hypothetical facts that could change their analysis:

The analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person's acquiescence in the prayer opportunity. No such thing occurred in the town of Greece. Although board members themselves stood, bowed their heads, or made the sign of the cross during the prayer, they at no point solicited similar gestures by the public. Respondents point to several occasions where audience members were asked to rise for the prayer. These requests, however, came not from town leaders but from the guest ministers, who presumably are accustomed to directing their congregations in this way and might have done so thinking the action was inclusive, not coercive. Respondents suggest that constituents might feel pressure to join the prayers to avoid irritating the officials who would be ruling on their petitions, but this argument has no evidentiary support. Nothing in the record indicates that town leaders allocated benefits and burdens based on participation in the prayer, or that citizens were received differently depending on whether they joined the invocation or quietly declined. In no instance did town leaders signal disfavor toward nonparticipants or suggest that their stature in the community was in any way diminished. A practice that classified citizens based on their religious views would violate the Constitution, but that is not the case before this Court.

Id. at 1826 (citations omitted). They also noted the audience had options to avoid the prayers altogether:

Nothing in the record suggests that members of the public are dissuaded from leaving the meeting room during the prayer, arriving late, or even, as happened here, making a later protest. In this case, as in Marsh, board members and constituents are "free to enter and leave with little comment and for any number of reasons." Should nonbelievers choose to exit the room during a prayer they find distasteful, their absence will not stand out as disrespectful or even noteworthy. And should they remain, their quiet acquiescence will not, in light of our traditions, be interpreted as an agreement with the words or ideas expressed. Neither choice represents an unconstitutional imposition as to mature adults, who "presumably" are "not readily susceptible to religious indoctrination or peer pressure."

Id. at 1827 (citations omitted).

         Justices Thomas and Scalia did not join the coercion section of Justice Kennedy's opinion (Part II-B), but expressly disagreed with it. In a separate opinion, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Scalia, wrote that coercion is limited to "coercive state establishments" "by force of law or threat of penalty, " such as mandatory church attendance, levying taxes to generate church revenue, barring ministers who dissented, and limiting political participation to members of the established church. Id. at 1837 (Thomas, J., concurring in part and in the judgment). Therefore, they rejected Justice Kennedy's broadening of coercion to also include social pressures:

At a minimum, there is no support for the proposition that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment embraced wholly modern notions that the Establishment Clause is violated whenever the "reasonable observer" feels "subtle pressure, " or perceives governmental "endors[ement]."
* * *
Thus, to the extent coercion is relevant to the Establishment Clause analysis, it is actual legal coercion that counts-not the "subtle coercive pressures" allegedly felt by respondents in this case. The majority properly concludes that "[o]ffense . . . does not equate to coercion, " since "[a]dults often encounter speech they find disagreeable[, ] and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum." I would simply add, in light of the foregoing history of the Establishment Clause, that "[p]eer pressure, unpleasant as it may be, is not coercion" either.

Id. at 1838 (alterations in original and internal citations omitted).


         Our first inquiry is "to determine whether the prayer practice in [Jackson County] fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures." Id. at 1819 (Majority Op.). We hold that it does.[5]


         At the heart of this appeal is whether Jackson County's prayer practice falls outside our historically accepted traditions because the Commissioners themselves, not chaplains, or invited community members, lead the invocations. Bormuth contends legislator-led prayer is per se unconstitutional, and "[b]ecause each Commissioner is Christian . . ., every prayer offered has been Christian" and therefore the Jackson County Board of Commissioners is endorsing the Christian faith. We reject this narrow reading of the Supreme Court's legislative-prayer jurisprudence and our history.


         There is no support for Bormuth's granular view of legislative prayer. In this regard, neither Marsh nor Town of Greece restricts who may give prayers in order to be consistent with historical practice. In Marsh, for example, the Supreme Court separately listed "paid legislative chaplains and opening prayers" as consistent with the Framers' understanding of the Establishment Clause. 463 U.S. at 788 (emphasis added). And Town of Greece made clear that we are to focus upon "the prayer opportunity as a whole" in light of "historical practices and understandings." 134 S.Ct. at 1819, 1824 (citation omitted).

         Most significantly, history shows that legislator-led prayer is a long-standing tradition. Before the founding of our Republic, legislators offered prayers to commence legislative sessions. See, e.g., American Archives, Documents of the American Revolutionary Period, 1774-76, v1:1112 (documenting legislator-led prayer in South Carolina's legislature in 1775); see also Town of Greece, 134 S.Ct. at 1833 (Alito, J., concurring); cf. S. Rep. No. 32-376, at 4 (1853) ("[The Founders] did not intend to prohibit a just expression of religious devotion by the legislators of the nation, even in their public character as legislators."). Legislator-led prayer has persisted in various state capitals since at least 1849.[6] See Brief of Amici Curiae State of Michigan and Twenty-One Other States, at 5-6; Brief of Amici Curiae Local and State Legislators and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, at 5-9; Brief of Amici Curiae Members of Congress, at 4. Indeed, the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate sit just north of Jackson County and have documented legislator-led prayer examples dating back at least to 1879 and 1898, respectively. See H.R. Journal, at 10, 82, 591, 956 (Mich. 1879) (prayers by representatives); S. Journal, Extra Sess., at 180 (Mich. 1898) (prayer by senator).[7]

         These historical examples are consistent with those relied upon by the Supreme Court to find traditions of legislative prayer in Marsh and Town of Greece. Nebraska's legislature, noted the Court in Marsh, paid a chaplain since at least 1867. 463 U.S. at 794. The same is true for Town of Greece, where the Court extended Marsh from state capitals to town halls by way of one prayer offered before the City Counsel of Boston in 1910. 134 S.Ct. at 1819. Amici's helpful identification of the historical breadth of legislator-led prayer in the state capitals for over one hundred fifty years more than confirms to us that our history embraces prayers by legislators as part of the "benign acknowledgment of religion's role in society." Id. Accordingly, we give no credence to Bormuth's contention that these examples are just "historical aberrations." The same can be said for the Fourth Circuit's conclusion in Lund that ...

Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.