Cultural Issues in the Courts: October 2017 Update

Courthouse with the year 2017 overlayed

Oct. 27, 2017

Conflicting rulings on invocations at government meetings, physician-assisted suicide, and war memorials are all subjects of this issue of the Executive Briefing Judicial Update.

Religious Freedom, Legislative Prayers — Michigan

It’s okay for county commissioners to pray an opening prayer before their public meetings, even if those prayers are overwhelmingly Christian, rules the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a case arising from Jackson County, Michigan. Previous U.S. Supreme Court cases had validated such prayers under varying sets of facts, but before now no court has considered whether government officials themselves could pray. The ruling conflicts with a recent case from the 4th Circuit, perhaps guaranteeing that this issue will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Religious Freedom, Legislative Prayers — Florida

Contrary to the Michigan case above: Specifically excluding non-theists, like atheists and agnostics, from offering invocations before county meetings violates the Establishment Clause, a Florida federal judge has ruled.

Religious Freedom, Legislative Prayer — Washington, D.C.

But an atheist’s exclusion from U.S. House invocations is upheld: In contrast to the Florida ruling, however, a federal judge in Washington, D.C. affirms the right of the U.S. House of Representatives to reject a request from an atheist to deliver the daily invocation at the beginning of the House's daily session.

The House Chaplain requires guest chaplains to be ordained, and their prayers must recognize a higher power. The judge concluded that neither of these requirements, nor the Chaplain's rejection of the request, violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

Life, Physician-Assisted Suicide — New York

The highest appellate court in New York unanimously rules that physician-assisted suicide is not guaranteed under the state’s constitution, and the state legislature had rational reasons for prohibiting it, such as fear of coercion, respect for life, and preventing suicide. The ruling is consistent with several other recent state court decisions around the country, and the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1997 that there is no such right under the U.S. Constitution.

Religious Freedom, War Memorial — Maryland

A 92-year old World War I cross-shaped memorial on public land in Bladensburg, Maryland, must come down, a federal judge has ordered. The memorial carries “an inherently religious message and creates the unmistakable appearance of honoring only Christian servicemen,” the judge stated. The decision will be appealed.

Compiled by Bruce Hausknecht, J.D. A lawyer and former pastor, Bruce joined Focus in 2004 as an analyst and spokesman for the ministry on public policy matters.