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Ocala prayer case is sent back to lower court

hands in prayer

A federal appeals court Friday directed a district judge to reconsider a ruling that said a 2014 prayer vigil backed by the Ocala police chief was unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision last month that supported a Bremerton, Wash., high-school football coach who lost his job after praying on the field following games. The panel said the district judge in the Ocala case should apply a legal standard that the Supreme Court used in the football-coach decision.

The district judge used a different standard in a 2018 ruling in favor of plaintiffs who challenged the constitutionality of the Ocala prayer vigil. The Supreme Court said the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment should be interpreted by “by reference to historical practices and understandings,” according to the appeals-court panel.

“We remand this (Ocala) case to the district court to give it an opportunity to apply in the first instance the historical practices and understandings standard endorsed in Kennedy (the U.S. Supreme Court decision),” said the nine-page opinion written by Judge Ed Carnes and joined by Judges Kevin Newsom and Gerald Tjoflat.

The plaintiffs filed the Ocala lawsuit in November 2014 after attending the vigil, which came amid a spate of shootings in the community. Attorneys for the plaintiffs contended that then-Chief Greg Graham played an important role in the event and pointed to issues such as the involvement of the police-department chaplains in the event.

“Defendants intended to promote prayer,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in a court brief. “That is a religious purpose and ‘is dispositive’ of its unconstitutionality.”

But attorneys for the city contended that the vigil was “organized and put on by private citizens and volunteer chaplains for the Ocala Police Department,” with Graham playing a limited role that included posting a letter on Facebook that encouraged people to participate. The city took the case to the Atlanta-based appeals court after the district judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.

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