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High court turns down city whose post-shooting prayer vigil inspired suit

Two of the court’s conservative justices sounded off on the rejection, voicing doubt about the standing of the atheists behind the case. 

WASHINGTON (CN) — Justice Clarence Thomas urged the Supreme Court to jump into another case examining the separation of church and state on Monday in a battle over a government-sponsored prayer vigil that followed a Florida shooting spree. 

Police in Ocala, Florida, held the prayer vigil in 2014 after shootings that injured several children. Officers stood on a stage with religious leaders and led prayers for the children. Several atheists who attended the vigil then took the city to court, arguing that the police involvement in the religious display violated the Establishment Clause. 

A federal judge ruled for the atheists at summary judgment, but the case remains unresolved after the 11th Circuit vacated the judgment and ordered the lower court to consider recent Supreme Court precedent.

Last year in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Supreme Court sided with a high school football coach who lost his job over a prayer circle that he led on the 50-yard line after games.

Ocala meanwhile wanted the court to go further, saying the atheists who sued it should have been barred at the gate for lack of standing since they attended an event that they knew would be religious. 

While the case will not be going to the high court for oral arguments, Thomas dissented and said the court should correct the record on what he called “offended observer standing." 

“Offended observer standing appears to warp the very essence of the judicial power vested by the Constitution,” the Bush appointee wrote. “Under Article III, federal courts are authorized ‘to adjudge the legal rights of litigants in actual controversies,’ not hurt feelings.” 

Claiming the court has “muddied the waters” in Establishment Clause cases by allowing these types of claims to come before them, Thomas said the court should remedy the issue by taking up this case.

“We should reconsider this seeming aberration before it further erodes bedrock Article III restrictions on the judicial power,” Thomas said.

Justice Neil Gorsuch respected the court’s denial but also wrote an opinion in which he urged the court to take up the issue at a later date. 

“This Court has never endorsed the notion that an ‘offended observer’ may bring an Establishment Clause claim,” the Trump appointee wrote. “Elsewhere in the law, we routinely say that Article III demands a more ‘‘concrete and particularized’’ injury. And the same rule, we have said, applies in the Establishment Clause context too.”  

Gorsuch said he did not see a need for the court to take up the case before them now because the lower court will reviewing the merits claims against Bremerton. If the final judgment does not go Ocala's way, however, Gorsuch said the court could take up the issue. 

Following the court’s denial, a nonprofit representing Ocala’s challengers praised the outcome. The American Humanist Association argued the city’s claims would overturn long-standing precedent and make it impossible to sue for government violations to the Establishment Clause. 

“Today’s decision to send Ocala back to the district court reinforces what the American Humanist Association has long fought for: Government entities cannot coercively promote religious practices,” Sunil Panikkath, president of the American Humanist Association, said in a statement. “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.”

Ocala’s appeal was one of dozens that the Supreme Court rejected in its Monday order list. The justices granted a writ of certiorari for just one case. The maritime dispute stems from a yacht owned by a Pennsylvania-based realty company that ran aground. Raiders had insured the yacht through Great Lakes Insurance and filed a claim after the accident. Great Lakes denied their claim, however, arguing the yacht’s fire-extinguishing equipment was not up to date. The equipment was not directly involved in the accident, but Great Lakes claims it made Raiders’ policy void anyway.

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