The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied a Florida city’s request to dismiss a lawsuit filed by atheists who said they were offended after the city held a prayer vigil following a local mass shooting.
The city of Ocala had asked the Supreme Court to clarify whether “mental or emotional abuse allegedly caused by observing religious messages” was enough to allow the atheists to sue, arguing that this not the case. The Supreme Court denied the city’s petition, giving the atheists a temporary victory. However, Justice Neil Gorsuch explained in a statement how the lower courts now adjudicating the case would ultimately have to side with Ocala.
The case involves two individuals, Lucinda Hale and Art Rojas, who are members of the American Humanist Association. Hale and Rojas have accused Ocala of violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment after police organized a prayer vigil with local religious leaders in response to a 2014 shooting that left several children injured. According to court documents, the police chaplains prayed and sang on stage while in uniform.
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The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in several cases on Monday, declined to hear others and issued orders in pending cases. The court rejected a request from the city of Ocala to dismiss a lawsuit brought by atheists who were offended by a prayer vigil following a mass shooting in 2014. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
The atheists claimed that the religious elements of the prayer vigil were offensive and made them feel left out. The district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that the atheists had legal standing.
Ocala sought to have the Supreme Court review the 2018 decision of the 11th Circuit declaring the atheists steadfast in light of the court’s opinion in 2022 Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, when the Supreme Court said former football coach Joe Kennedy was entitled to lead members of his team in voluntary prayers after the game.
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Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a statement that the atheists should not have legal standing, but said the Supreme Court will let the case play out in lower courts before intervening. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool, File)
The Supreme Court declined the requestbut Gorsuch wrote in an accompanying statement that the legal theory the lower courts used to grant status to the atheists — dubbed the “Lemon Test” for a 1971 Supreme Court ruling — was now defunct.
In assessing whether a government action violates the Establishment Clause, the Lemon test required courts to consider whether the action had a secular purpose, whether the government was entangled in religion, and whether the main or primary effect of the action promoted religion or braked.
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Associate Justice Clarence Thomas disagreed, arguing that the Supreme Court should now hear Ocala’s case and clear up confusion over jurisdiction in cases involving the First Amendment’s incorporation clause. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
“As this Kennedy court has explained, the Lemon test on which the court relied is no longer in good standing,” Gorsuch wrote. While he agreed with Ocala’s argument that the atheists lacked legal standing, he said the Supreme Court need not intervene in the case because the 11th Circuit had already transferred the case to district court, where judges will be bound by the Kennedy lawsuit. decision.
“As we proceed, I expect that lower courts will recognize the offended observer who is no more grounded in the law than the Lemon test that inspired it. If I’m wrong, the city is free to seek help here after final judgment,” Gorsuch wrote.
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Judge Clarence Thomas issued a separate dissenting opinion arguing that the Supreme Court should have heard the case. He expressed “serious doubts” about the theory or position of the atheists, saying that the Supreme Court should have acted without waiting for the lower court’s trial.
“We need to reconsider this apparent anomaly before it further erodes fundamental Article III restrictions on the judiciary,” he wrote.
Chris Pandolfo is a writer for Fox News Digital. Send tips to [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ChrisCPandolfo.