ATLANTA (CN) – The 11th Circuit allowed two county commissions to continue opening their meetings with prayers from volunteer clergy of various faiths, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Prayers have been offered up to “Jesus,” “Allah,” “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” “Mohammed” and “Heavenly Father.”
Taxpayers in Cobb County said the invocations violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which permits only nonsectarian prayers. They asked the court to enjoin the Cobb County Commission and the Cobb County Planning Commission from continuing the practice.
But the appeals court cited a Supreme Court finding that “the 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.”
The circuit court held that the county commission had not exploited the prayers, and “refused to parse the content of the prayers.”
The planning commission crossed the line in 2003 to 2004, the court ruled, when the deputy clerk crossed off the names of certain churches in the Yellow Pages, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints. Those church leaders were not asked to provide the invocation.
But those practices changed when the commissions consolidated their selection procedures, using a master list to randomly select a speaker to offer the prayer.
Sectarian prayers are allowed, Judge Pryor wrote, so long as they do not promote one religion over another.
The court awarded taxpayers nominal damages for the constitutional violations of 2003 and 2004.
Judge Middlebrooks dissented, saying the Supreme Court’s decision in Marsh v. Chambers should not be “read so broadly as to authorize prayer at virtually every government meeting.”