Neil Gorsuch cast doubt on a group of atheists' lawsuit over a Florida city's prayer vigil, saying everything done by the government 'probably offends somebody'
The Supreme Court declined to take up a city's request to block a lawsuit brought by atheists over a prayer vigil.
Justice Neil Gorsuch sided with the court, but questioned whether the atheists had a right to sue.
"Really, most every governmental action probably offends somebody," Gorsuch said.
The Supreme Court on Monday declined to block a lawsuit brought by a group of atheists against a Florida city's prayer vigil, but Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned whether the group had a right to sue.
"Really, most every governmental action probably offends somebody," Gorsuch, who agreed with the court's decision not to intervene in the case, said in a statement, referencing a concurring opinion he wrote in a 2019 Supreme Court case involving the separation of church and state.
"No doubt, too, that offense can be sincere, sometimes well taken, even wise," Gorsuch continued. "But recourse for disagreement and offense does not lie in federal litigation."
A group of atheists, represented by the American Humanist Association, sued the city of Ocala, Florida, over its hosting of a 2014 prayer vigil after a local shooting that injured several children, claiming the event violated the First Amendment's establishment clause, which bans the government from endorsing religion.
In 2018, a Florida federal district judge sided with the atheists. The city of Ocala appealed that decision, arguing the group lacked standing, or the legal right to sue.
A federal appeals court found that that at least one of the atheists who attended the vigil, Lucinda Hale, had standing as she alleged she was "directly affected" by the event and suffered an injury because of it. The court returned the case back to the district court to further review whether the city violated the establishment clause.
The city asked the Supreme Court to determine if the atheists were actually harmed by the prayer vigil to have their lawsuit move forward, and to rule on whether "psychic or emotional offense allegedly caused by observation of religious messages an injury sufficient to confer standing." But the Supreme Court refused to intervene on Monday.
Gorsuch, in his statement, said the district court should reconsider whether the atheists had standing, noting that the Supreme Court "has never endorsed the notion that an 'offended observer' may bring an Establishment Clause claim."
"It didn't matter that the plaintiff went to the vigil knowing that she would be offended," Gorsuch, a Trump appointee, wrote of the lower court's decision. "What mattered was that prayers reached her ears."
While Gorsuch did appear sympathetic to the city of Ocala's request to dismiss the lawsuit, he agreed that the legal battle should play out in the lower courts.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the Supreme Court's decision, saying the justices should have reviewed the case to settle the so-called offended observer theory.
"I have serious doubts about the legitimacy of the 'offended observer' theory of standing applied below," Thomas, widely considered the most conservative justice, said.
The Supreme Court's 6-3 conservative majority in recent years has reviewed a number of disputes concerning religious liberty and the First Amendment's free exercise of religious and establishment clauses, often handing down rulings in favor of religious groups and interests. In a notable case last year, the court sided with a former public high school football coach who lost his job for praying on the field after games.
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