Having only two Supreme Court cases to guide its decision, the Court of Appeals had to determine if Jackson County’s practice fell outside the ambit of historically tolerated legislative prayer, and therefore outside the bounds of the Establishment Clause.
The Court of Appeals looked at three factors. First, the identity of prayer giver. According to the Court, when the Board of Commissioners opened its monthly meeting with a prayer, said by the Chairman, there was no distinction between the government and the prayer giver; they are one and the same. Second, because only the Commissioners were responsible for the prayer content, the prayer content was exclusively Christian. As such, the Commissioners effectively were endorsing a specific religion. Finally, because of the small and intimate setting of a local government meeting, where those in attendance are there to address issues immediately affecting their lives, there existed an element of coercion. The Chairman essentially directed the public to participate in the prayer, and his words are “cloaked in procedural formality.”
According to the Court of Appeals “the Board of Commissioners’ used prayer to begin its monthly meeting violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. 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 v. County of Jackson, Case No. 15-1869.