The conservative majority Supreme Court has become much more protective of religious liberty issues in recent years, but the high court’s latest action in a case regarding the subject has many conservatives scratching their heads.
According to NBC News, SCOTUS sided with atheists this week when it rejected to hear an appeal “challenging the right of a group of atheists to sue the city of Ocala, Florida, on First Amendment grounds.”
The lawsuit, known as Ocala v. Rojas, stemmed from a 2014 incident in which the City of Ocala established a Christian prayer vigil for a number of students who were shot and killed in a drive-by shooting.
The Epoch Times noted: “Some local atheists, the respondents in the current appeal, attended the vigil and claimed that by organizing the event, the city had violated the so-called separation of church and state and the Constitution’s establishment clause, which prevents the government from establishing an official religion and expressing a preference for one religion over another.”
Why the lawsuit?
Atheists attended the prayer vigil at the time, and later sued the city over an “alleged violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits governments from establishing or favoring a particular religion,” NBC News noted.
The court denies review in City of Ocala v. Rojas, a case about standing to sue for alleged violations of the establishment clause. Clarence Thomas writes a five-page dissent from the court’s denial of review. Neil Gorsuch also adds a separate statement. https://t.co/b0QZwA2Kwc
— SCOTUSblog (@SCOTUSblog) March 6, 2023
A federal judge in 2018 ruled in favor of the group of atheists, represented by the American Humanist Association.
Last summer, in July 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the decision that allows the atheist group to sue the Florida city.
However, the situation took a drastic turn when the Supreme Court ruled in favor last year of a Washington state high school football coach who was fired for praying on the field after the games. The fact that the high court sided with the coach made the Appeals court send it back to the district court, ordering a judge to reconsider the Ocala v. Rojas ruling.
The 11th Circuit’s order makes it possible that, under the new standard set by the Supreme Court, the atheists in the Ocala suit are at risk of having their victory in the district court overturned.
The lone dissenter
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was the only justice to dissent in the recent decision.
“I have serious doubts about the legitimacy of the ‘offended observer’ theory of standing,” his dissent read.
It added: “Under Article III [of the Constitution], federal courts are authorized ‘to adjudge the legal rights of litigants in actual controversies,’ not hurt feelings.”
Only time will tell whether or not the lower court reverses its earlier decision. In light of recent developments, it just may.