By Brad Flory – Exponent special writer
Jackson County commissioners won an unexpected victory Monday in a legal fight to assert their right to pray at county meetings.
On its own initiative, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a Feb. 15 ruling against the county, a ruling issued by its own court.
The Feb. 15 decision by a three-judge panel is now discarded so the case can be heard and decided by all judges on the Sixth Circuit bench instead of three.
“The previous decision and judgment of this court are vacated, the mandate is stayed, and this case is restored to the docket as a pending appeal,” says the Feb. 27 court order.
One immediate result of this latest legal development is that county commissioners can once again open their meetings by saying prayers without violating a court order.
“My expectation is that we will go back to what we did [with prayers],” said Jackson County Administrator Michael Overton.
Arguments before the entire Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati are scheduled June 14.
Several developments in the past week indicate the prayer case is taking on visibility and significance well beyond Jackson County.
Meeting in special session Feb. 24, the Board of Commissioners vowed to fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary, for their right to pray.
The financial burden of a national-level court fight has eased greatly because commissioners also accepted an offer of free legal representation from First Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas. First Liberty bills itself as “the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to protecting religious freedom for all Americans.”
“We believe our overall legal fees will be reduced by 90 percent,” said Overton. The county has spent $48,767.87 on attorney fees in the case so far.
Prayer at county meetings is definitely allowed under a 2014 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The key question is whether commissioners themselves, as the face of government, can lead the prayers.
For decades, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners opened meetings with an invocation delivered by a commissioner.
That practice was challenged in 2013 by Peter Bormuth of Jackson, a self-described pagan who filed suit in federal court. Bormuth argues that when commissioners ask people attending government meetings to rise in prayer, it violates the constitution and the rights of non-Christians.
Jackson County won in U.S. District Court in 2015, but that outcome was reversed by the Feb. 15 ruling by the Court of Appeals panel.
Facing a court order declaring their usual prayers to be illegal, commissioners opened their Feb. 21 meeting with a moment of silence instead.
More than a dozen people at that same meeting urged commissioners to keep fighting for their right to pray. The Jackson County Republican Party reportedly encouraged members to speak up for an appeal.
“If you don’t appeal, it’s just like you’re rolling over and playing dead, and people are going to keep walking over you,” commissioners were told by Phil Clark of Liberty Township.
Two people addressed the county board by saying the Lord’s Prayer, and others described county’s circumstances as an opportunity to take God’s work to the Supreme Court.
“Satan and his agents have won a small victory, but we will win in the long run,” said Tony Bair of Sandstone Township.
Also meeting on Feb. 21, the Jackson City Council responded to the Feb. 15 ruling by altering its tradition of opening with a prayer from a council member. Pastor Terry Boyd of Sycamore Baptist Church prayed instead.
Mattis D. Nordfjord, a Lansing lawyer whose firm has represented the county to this point, said he secured First Liberty’s services Feb. 22.
“They will do most of the heavy lifting on the case from now on,” Nordfjord said.
Step one of the county’s appeal plan was filing a request that all Sixth Circuit judges rehear the case, Nordfjord said.
As it turned out, no request was necessary because the Sixth Circuit ordered a rehearing without being asked.
“They saw the wisdom of reviewing the case on their own volition,” said Overton.
Jackson County commissioners have already announced they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if they lose in the Court of Appeals. Bormuth is also likely to appeal if he loses.
“This one is going to the Supreme Court,” Bormuth predicted last week.