The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a Florida city’s request to dismiss a lawsuit brought by atheists who say they were offended after the city held a prayer vigil following a local mass shooting.
The City of Ocala had asked the Supreme Court to clarify whether “psychic or emotional offense allegedly caused by observation of religious messages” was sufficient to grant the atheists standing to sue, arguing it is not. The Supreme Court denied the city’s petition, handing the atheists a temporary win. However, Justice Neil Gorsuch explained in a statement how the lower courts now reviewing the case should ultimately side with Ocala.
The case concerns two individuals, Lucinda Hale and Art Rojas, who are members of the American Humanist Association. Hale and Rojas have accused Ocala of violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment after police organized a prayer vigil with local religious leaders in response to a 2014 shooting in which several children were injured. Court documents said police chaplains were praying and singing on stage while in uniform.
The atheists claimed that the religious elements of the prayer vigil were offensive and made them feel excluded. The district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that the atheists had standing to sue.
Ocala sought to have the Supreme Court review 11th Circuit’s 2018 decision granting the atheists standing in light of the court’s 2022 opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, when the Supreme Court said former football coach Joe Kennedy had the right to lead members of his team in voluntary post game prayers.
The Supreme Court rejected the request, but Gorsuch wrote in an accompanying statement that the legal theory the lower courts used to grant the atheists standing — called the “Lemon test” for a 1971 Supreme Court ruling — was now defunct.
In evaluating whether a government action violates the Establishment Clause, the Lemon test required courts to consider whether the action had a secular purpose, whether the government was entangled with religion and whether the principal or primary effect of the action advanced or inhibited religion.
“As this Court explained in Kennedy, the Lemon test on which the District Court relied is no longer good law,” Gorsuch wrote. While he agreed with Ocala’s argument that the atheists lacked standing to sue, he said the Supreme Court did not need to intervene in the case because the 11th Circuit had already vacated it to the district court, where judges will be bound by the Kennedy decision.
“Moving forward, I expect lower courts will recognize the offended observer standing has no more foundation in the law than the Lemon test that inspired it. If I am wrong, the city is free to seek relief here after final judgment,” Gorsuch wrote.
Justice Clarence Thomas issued a separate dissent where he argued the Supreme Court should have taken up the case. He expressed “serious doubts” to the atheists’ theory or standing and said the Supreme Court should have acted without waiting for the lower court process to play out.
“We should reconsider this seeming aberration before it further erodes bedrock Article III restrictions on the judicial power,” he wrote.