Members of a public board in Michigan have expressed dismay over a ruling prohibiting them from praying during meetings after a self-described pagan and animist brought a lawsuit claiming the prayers were "coercive" and "burdened" those who refused to take part in them.
In a 2-1 decision, the court ruled in favor of Peter Bormuth, a Jackson County resident and animist whose religious practices include worshipping the sun and moon, ancestral spirits and the earth, according to the Washington Times.
"I'm taken aback, and a little surprised," Commission Chairman James Shotwell said in response to the ruling. "We are a Christian nation, and I believe that we open our meetings correctly."
Another commissioner said that the lawsuit was an "attack on Christianity and Jesus Christ, period," while still another commissioner said Bormuth was "attacking . . . my Lord and savior Jesus Christ."
Bormuth, who began attending Jackson County Board of Commissioners meetings in 2013 to discuss environmental issues, said the board's practice of beginning each meeting with a prayer - including calling for attendees to "rise" and "assume a reverent position" - was a coercive and unconstitutional imposition of religious exercise.
In turn, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said prayer invocations at public meetings can be legal. However, in Jackson County, the court noted that only commissioners offered a prayer, not audience members, and the prayer was always Christian, not from other faiths.
"There is no distinction between the government and the prayer-giver: They are one and the same. The prayers, in Bormuth's words, are literally 'government speech,'" said judges Karen Nelson Moore and Jane Branstetter Stranch.
"Accordingly, we hold that the Board of Commissioners' use of prayer to begin its monthly meetings violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause," Moore wrote in the majority opinion. "The prayer practice is well outside the tradition of historically tolerated prayer, and it coerces Jackson County residents to support and participate in the exercise of religion."
Bormuth, who represented himself in the case and will receive "nominal damages," said he was "very pleased" with the outcome: "I can't wait to read the decision," he said. "One of the greatest gifts we were given by our Founding Fathers was the separation of church and state and religious freedom."
The suit was first filed Aug. 30, 2013, according to MLive. The U.S. District Court ruling in favor of Jackson County came in July 2015 and the case was argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals on April 29, 2016.
On his website, Bormuth says he supports a "strict constitutional separation of church and state" and boasts about his long history of opposing "terrible laws" passed by "Christian Republicans."
"I stood outside Planned Parenthood, alone, with my sign supporting women's reproductive rights and faced down Mike Shirkey and his group of Christian anti-abortion protesters," he wrote in his bio. "I challenged Jackson County In Federal Court on their practice of delivering Christian prayers, which violates the Constitutional separation of church and state."