Supreme Court Declines Florida City’s Challenge to Atheist Lawsuit

March 6, 2023

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a challenge by Ocala, Florida against a lawsuit by atheists who accuse city officials of violating the First Amendment.

The atheists, backed by the American Humanist Association, assert that Ocala officials violated the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment when uniformed police chaplains staged a Judeo-Christian prayer vigil in 2014 at the downtown Ocala Square after several children were wounded in a spate of shootings.

Ocala officials wanted the Supreme Court to reject a claim by the atheists that they had sustained legally recognizable injuries as “offended observers” of religious messages at what the plaintiffs assert was a secular event.

The Court rejected Ocala’s request with conservative Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting. Thomas expressed “serious doubts” about the legitimacy of lawsuits based on injuries sustained by offended observers.

“[F]ederal courts are authorized ‘to adjudge the legal rights of litigants in actual controversies,’ not hurt feelings,” Thomas wrote.

Another conservative Justice, Neil Gorsuch, further expressed doubt in writing that the plaintiffs had proper legal standing to sue.

In 2018 a judge in Ocala ruled in favor of the plaintiffs—awarding them nominal damages of one dollar each. However, the 11th Circuit Court, based in Atlanta, threw out the judgment following the Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling that a football coach at a public high school had a Constitutional right to pray at the 50-yard line after his team’s games.

However, the 11th Circuit did find that one plaintiff, Lucinda Hale, had proper standing to sue based on her argument that the city violated the Establishment Clause by excluding atheists like her from participating in a public vigil that focused exclusively on prayer. The court narrowed the case to her and one other plaintiff against one defendant, the city of Ocala.

A federal district court will now weigh the plaintiffs’ establishment clause claims in light of the football coach’s ruling. 

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