For Immediate Release
Kate Uesugi, firstname.lastname@example.org, 202-238-9088 (ext. 105)
(Washington, DC, October 18, 2021) – On Friday, October 15th, the American Humanist Association (AHA) filed its appellate brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, defending its victory against Ocala, Florida officials for holding an hour-long Christian prayer vigil, organized and sponsored by the City of Ocala, its mayor, and its police department. Trump lawyer, Jay Sekulow, and son, Jordan Sekulow, represent the city and aim to push the case to the Supreme Court.
“The police chief deployed his staff and Christian ministers to deliver prayers from a stage he controlled for an hour, violating the Establishment Clause in the most fundamental way,” said Monica Miller, Legal Director and Senior Counsel and lead counsel on the case. “Our forefathers fled from England and created the Establishment Clause in the Bill of Rights due to strife over government-endorsed religious observance; it is not an exaggeration to say that the Establishment Clause exists to prohibit events exactly like Ocala’s police-led church service.”
The AHA won its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Florida in May 2018. Bush-appointed Judge Timothy J. Corrigan ruled in AHA’s favor, proclaiming that Ocala’s Prayer Vigil was “inconsistent both with the purposes of the Establishment Clause and with the Establishment Clause itself.”
The AHA originally filed the case on behalf of four Marion County residents in November 2014. Rojas et al v. City of Ocala, Florida et al (Case No. 18-12679) challenged the constitutionality of the vigil, which included prayer, religious songs, Christian sermons, and call-and-response style preaching. The event was held on a high Jewish holiday, offending many local Jewish citizens who could not attend.
“It would take Olympic level stretching to find that the government acted neutrally with regard to religion in this case,” wrote Miller in the Summary of the Argument of the recent appellate brief. The brief stands out from AHA’s previous appellate briefs, as it centers on the original “evils” the Establishment Clause was intended to forestall, and dedicates an entire section to the protection of religious liberty. “This case is not about shielding atheists from offense. It is about shielding prayer from atheism. And government from tyranny. And society from strife,” she explains in the summary.
Ocala officials, represented by Jay and Jordan Sekulow, now argue that the purpose of the police prayer vigil was to pressure witnesses in a shooting to come forward and not to promote prayer. Miller asserts this makes their argument much more corrupt.
“Using prayer to lure worshipers into a witness interrogation is an extreme abuse of power,” Miller wrote.
“Defending the 2018 lower court victory comes at an already precarious time for the separation of church and state in this country,” comments AHA Deputy Director Nicole Carr. “Now, more than ever, we must come together with science and reason to guide us, rather than allowing government-promoted religion to divide us.”
A copy of the response brief can be found here.
The American Humanist Association (AHA) works to protect the rights of humanists, atheists, and other nontheistic Americans. The AHA advances the ethical and life-affirming worldview of humanism, which—without beliefs in gods or other supernatural forces—encourages individuals to live informed and meaningful lives that aspire to the greater good of humanity.
Special thanks to the Louis J. Appignani Foundation for their support of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center.