A minor but potentially serious change in the way that the courts have interpreted the First Amendment limits on church and state

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On September 6, 2017, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, sitting en banc (the full court — not just a three judge panel) ruled that a Michigan county commission could start meetings with Christian invocations. This is a minor but potentially serious change in the way that the courts have interpreted the First Amendment limits on church and state. Specifically the issue is what constitutes the “Establishment” of a religion by the state.

The prior rule, in effect for the past seventy years or so, had been that Legislatures could invite rotating religious chaplains to recite prayers as long as members of the public were not coerced to join. Typically, prayers were of a neutral tone that could be embraced by members of many religions.

Jackson County has been letting commissioners lead the prayers. All the commissioners are Christian, and so every Jackson County Commission meeting begins with a Christian prayer. One of the concurring opinions noted that the City of Hamtramck, which currently has an all-Muslim city council would be allowed under this ruling to begin every City Council meeting with a Muslim prayer.

The case may well go to the US Supreme Court. If so, the court needs to carefully review the ramifications. The majority of the Sixth Circuit stated that a member of the public could be offended by the prayer without being coerced to join the prayer and that was constitutional.

I sincerely doubt that if this case had come from Hamtramck whether the court would have ruled the same way.

To read the full Opinion click here.  For more information or questions concerning this post, please contact author, David Nacht.

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