Can officials pray in public? It’s complicated

A lawsuit over a 2014 prayer vigil in Ocala, Florida, helps illustrate the complicated nature of establishment clause cases

Mayor Kent Guinn of Ocala, Florida, has a prayer problem. Well, to be more precise, he has a problem with people who don’t want him to pray.

For the past seven years, he and the city he serves have been embroiled in a lawsuit over a prayer vigil held in the town square after a crime spree left several children injured. City officials, as well as other community leaders, felt the event would offer comfort and also potentially spur key witnesses to come forward.

The Ocala Police Department helped advertise the event, including by posting a formal invitation on its Facebook page. Uniformed police chaplains were among the faith leaders who offered prayers from the stage.

Three attendees, along with the American Humanist Association, allege that the event involved unlawful government promotion of faith. Guinn and other city officials say there’s nothing wrong with supporting and even joining community members who want to gather and pray.

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In 2018, a U.S. district judge ruled against Ocala, writing that the “religious purpose” of the prayer vigil outweighed any secular considerations and therefore violated constitutional standards.

The decision left the city with an important choice to make. They could accept the decision and pay some nominal damages and attorney’s fees or they could keep fighting and ask the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to intervene.

In part because of Guinn’s insistence, the city chose the second option, and parties to the lawsuit recently filed their latest round of legal briefs.

Rather than as a burden, the mayor sees the lawsuit as a way to fight back against those who — in his mind wrongfully — want to widen the gap between church and state.

“They’re telling us we’ve got to take the ‘God be with us’ off our seal, get rid of the chaplains program at the police department, stop using the word prayer, stop having prayer events. That’s not going to work. It’s like you’re the kid on the school playground and the bully says, ‘Give me all your lunch money or I’m going to give you a knuckle sandwich!’ If you back down to a person like that, they’re going to keep coming and coming,” Guinn said.

The city’s opponents in the lawsuit say officials are mischaracterizing many of their concerns. The goal is not to force city leaders to never speak of prayer again; it’s to ensure that residents with less common religious beliefs or no religious beliefs feel welcome at publicly sponsored or endorsed events, said Monica Miller, legal director and senior counsel at the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

If government officials “were completely hands off and just showed up (at the vigil) that would have been fine,” she said.

A growing culture war

Although the circumstances surrounding the Ocala prayer vigil case are unique, it raises by now familiar questions about how American government officials can speak on, write about or interact with religion.

The law allows leaders like Guinn to acknowledge the significance of faith in some ways, but it’s hard to articulate exactly when such acknowledgement stops being OK, said Rick Garnett, a professor of law and political science at the University of Notre Dame.

“There isn’t really an obvious set of answers,” despite the fact that the Supreme Court has heard and ruled on many prayer cases in the past, he said.

In the absence of a clear legal precedent and amid the decline of institutional Christianity, the tension surrounding public displays of faith by government officials will only continue to rise, according to Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University.

To some Americans, leaders like Guinn are heroes who defend Christian America from the forces of secularism. To others, their behavior is seen as divisive and as a violation of the Constitution’s establishment clause.

“What we’re really running into here is ... a culture war divide,” Tuttle said. “On one side stand those who want to see the government as a secular entity only speaking in a secular voice and only doing secular things. ... On the other side are those who press for the idea of America as an essentially Christian nation.”

Faith in the court system

In any setting, it would be nearly impossible to get members of the two camps onto the same page. But the legal system seems especially ill-suited for resolving this conflict, since related cases often get bogged down by or dismissed due to questions of standing and disagreements between parties over what really took place.

Still, the Supreme Court has provided some important insights over the years. For one thing, it’s said that the government can’t coerce people to pray, especially not impressionable public school students on their graduation day.

“The Supreme Court has been more willing to police prayer in the context of public schools than in other contexts,” Garnett said.

The court has also said that government officials shouldn’t privilege one particular faith over others by, for example, allowing only Christians to offer prayers before legislative meetings. However, it hasn’t been receptive to the argument that allowing any prayer to be offered in that setting privileges believers over atheists.

“Claiming that the government appeared to put its weight behind a religious activity won’t get you much sympathy if the event wasn’t used to promote or denigrate any one faith,” Tuttle said.

One reason why the Supreme Court is OK with some forms of church-state entanglement, including legislative prayers, is that certain practices have been part of American political life for decades. It’s as if, in the justices’ minds, the passage of time can transform a religious act into something that’s also patriotic.

To Garnett, this approach is preferable to one that would require the government to be purely secular at all times. The First Amendment was meant to guard against government control of religion, not political references to it.

“The establishment rule has never been understood to rule out public expressions of religiosity,” he said.

Tuttle, on the other hand, wishes the Supreme Court would put less stock in tradition. In the past, America was so religiously homogenous that it essentially operated like Protestant Christianity was the state religion, he said, adding that we shouldn’t behave like that today.

“The fact that something happened in the past doesn’t necessarily mean that it justifies its continuation in the present,” he said.

Seeking resolution

Tuttle isn’t optimistic that the legal system, as a whole, will see things his way anytime soon. But that’s not the reason he wishes more conversations about the government’s relationship to religion would take place outside the courtroom.

His reason is that lawsuits focus on what the Constitution allows. They rarely enable communities to figure out what pluralism looks like in action or help public officials understand how to be more inclusive when they talk about their faith.

Garnett agreed that the legal system is not equipped to answer what, at the end of the day, are political and social questions: How, as a community, should we celebrate or mourn? How do we use faith to draw people together, rather than tear them apart?

If you speak with those involved in the Ocala prayer vigil case, it becomes clear that many obstacles stand in the way of this out-of-court approach. It’s always tricky to debate religion, and it becomes even more difficult when politics is involved.

Miller from the American Humanist Association described the incredible backlash that she and various clients often face after raising establishment clause concerns. When people in Ocala began asking questions about the prayer vigil, public officials didn’t seem open to addressing — or, in some cases, even hearing — their thoughts, she said.

Officials “should not be dividing citizens based on religion,” Miller said.

Guinn, for his part, doesn’t seem to be looking to deescalate the clash. To hear him describe it, winning the lawsuit has become a religious mission unto itself.

“I’m a Christian, and I know we’re doing the right thing,” he said.

As of November 2021, an arrest still hadn’t been made in the 2014 shootings.