US Supreme Court rebuffs Florida city's challenge to atheist lawsuit

FILE PHOTO: The buliding of the U.S. Supreme Court is pictured in Washington

By John Kruzel

WASHINGTON -The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a Florida city's bid to fend off a lawsuit by atheists accusing officials of violating constitutional limits on government involvement in religion by staging a prayer vigil following gun violence that wounded three children.

The justices turned away an appeal by the city of Ocala of a lower court's ruling endorsing the right of the plaintiffs, backed by the American Humanist Association, to sue over legal harms they said they sustained attending the 2014 vigil in which uniformed police chaplains preached a Judeo-Christian message.

The plaintiffs accused Ocala of violating the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment "establishment clause," which restricts governmental involvement in religion. Ocala had urged the justices to reject the claim that the plaintiffs, as "offended observers" of religious messages, had sustained legally recognizable injuries.

Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, dissenting from the decision to reject the appeal, expressed "serious doubts" about the legitimacy of lawsuits by offended observers.

"Offended observer standing appears to warp the very essence of the judicial power vested by the Constitution," Thomas wrote, adding that "federal courts are authorized 'to adjudge the legal rights of litigants in actual controversies,' not hurt feelings."

Thomas has taken a broad view of religious rights during more than three decades as a justice.

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch separately wrote that he agreed with denying the appeal at this stage of the litigation but expressed doubt that the plaintiffs had proper legal standing to sue.

Ocala city officials helped organize and conduct the one-hour prayer vigil following a series of shootings in which three children were struck by stray bullets. Ocala's police department on its Facebook page posted a letter co-signed by the police chief and an activist affiliated with a local Baptist church that promoted the vigil and urged "fervent prayer" to help reduce crime in the community.

At the vigil, police chaplains "preached Judeo-Christian religion to the crowd in a style consistent with revivalist and evangelical religion," "participated in religious worship" and encouraged the crowd to engage in "responsive chanting," the plaintiffs wrote in court papers.

The American Humanist Association, which on its website says it seeks "to bring about a progressive society where being good without a god is an accepted and respected way to live life," and several of its members sued in federal court. The case has been narrowed to two plaintiffs, Lucinda Hale and Art Rojas, and a single defendant, the city.

Sunil Panikkath, the association's president, welcomed the court's decision to deny the city's appeal.

"As 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," Panikkath said.

A judge in 2018 ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, awarding nominal monetary damages of $1 each. The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out that judgment in light of a 2022 Supreme Court ruling expanding religious rights in the case of a Washington state public high school football coach who was suspended for refusing to stop leading Christian prayers with players on the field after games.

The 11th Circuit found that at least one of the plaintiffs, Hale, had proper standing to sue because the vigil caused a legally recognizable injury. Hale has argued that by violating the establishment clause the city injured her by favoring religion and excluding atheists like her from participating in a vigil focused exclusively on prayer.

A federal judge will now weigh the establishment clause claims in light of the football coach ruling.

A spokesperson for the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents Ocala, said: "The case continues in trial court and we will continue to litigate."

The conservative-majority Supreme Court in recent years has chipped away at the wall separating church and state, eroding American legal traditions aimed at barring government officials from promoting any particular faith.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)