Supreme Court allows atheists’ lawsuit against Florida city over prayer vigil to continue

CNN Newsource Pristine Villarreal

(CNN) — The Supreme Court declined on Monday to take up an appeal brought by a Florida city that was sued by individuals who argued it had violated the Constitution when it held a prayer vigil in 2014 in response to a local shooting.

The city of Ocala, Florida, had asked the Supreme Court to intervene in the case, arguing that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuit. The city said the justices should reject the atheists’ argument for why they had been injured with the prayer ceremony, making it appropriate for courts to hear their case.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court’s decision not to take up the case. Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a statement with the denial but did not dissent from the court’s move.

Thomas wrote that he had “serious doubts” about the atheists’ arguments for why they should be allowed to sue Ocala and said the Supreme Court should examine questions around the so-called “offended observer standing” theory, which allowed the case to proceed at the lower court level.

“We should have granted certiorari to review whether respondents had standing to bring their claims,” he wrote.

Gorsuch, however, expressed sympathy to the city’s arguments and said that its request that the justices intervene now was “understandable.” But he saw “no need for the Court’s intervention at this juncture.”

“Really, most every governmental action probably offends somebody,” he wrote. “But recourse for disagreement and offense does not lie in federal litigation.”

The high court’s refusal to get involved means that the case will continue at the lower court level.

“We’re going to continue to litigate the case. And we’ll raise — continue to raise the issue of standing and, of course, the Establishment Clause,” said Jay Sekulow, an attorney representing the city in the case.

CNN has reached out to a lawyer for the plaintiffs for comment.

The plaintiffs in the case, including Ocala resident Art Rojas, said that as an atheist, he was offended that the local government appeared to be endorsing a specific religion in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Sekulow argued that Rojas and others do not have the legal right to bring the lawsuit. In court papers, he pointed to prior precedent, saying “psychological consequence presumably produced by observation of conduct with which one disagrees is insufficient to confer standing.”

But a lawyer for Rojas told the justices that the case “is about protecting prayer from government intrusion and the government from tyranny.” The lawyer said that “uniformed police personnel preached Christianity in a revivalist style to hundreds of citizens assembled at its behest for an hour in the heart of town.”

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