Ocala City Council asks U.S. Supreme Court to decide 2014 downtown prayer vigil lawsuit

·3 min read

The Ocala City Council on Friday unanimously agreed to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider a longstanding lawsuit concerning a 2014 downtown prayer vigil.

West Ocala had a series of drive-by shootings in 2014. Then-Ocala Police Chief Greg Graham met with spiritual leaders and pastors, and they all agreed to hold a prayer vigil on the downtown square as part of an effort to stop the violence and solve the crimes.

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After the vigil, the American Humanist Association filed a federal lawsuit against the city and Graham on behalf of several plaintiffs. The suit alleges a violation of church and state. The plaintiffs noted, among other things, that uniformed police officers were at the rally, which government employees helped plan. Also, a notice was placed on the police department's web page.

Ocala Chief of Police Greg Graham talks with Art Rojas on Sept. 24, 2014, during a prayer vigil on the Ocala Downtown Square. Rojas and others later filed a federal lawsuit alleging a violation of church and state.
Ocala Chief of Police Greg Graham talks with Art Rojas on Sept. 24, 2014, during a prayer vigil on the Ocala Downtown Square. Rojas and others later filed a federal lawsuit alleging a violation of church and state.

According to an American Humanist Association press release issued Friday, the latest ruling in the case came on July 22 from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. That court sent the case back to the trial court for reconsideration in light of the newly decided Kennedy v. Bremerton case.

In Kennedy, which was decided in late June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a public high school football coach's right to pray on the field with students.

Monica Miller, AHA legal director and senior counsel, said in the release that "we see this (the 11th Circuit ruling) as a major victory."

She noted: "The lower court is asked to ensure our victory still holds up under the recent Supreme Court cases, and it unequivocally does."

Could Ocala be a landmark legal case?

In the special council meeting, called by Mayor Kent Guinn and held on Friday, council President Ire Bethea and council members James Hilty, Barry Mansfield and Jay Musleh voted 4-0 to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and hear the case. Council member Kristen Dreyer was absent.

Mayor Kent Guinn
Mayor Kent Guinn

Before the vote, Guinn urged city council members to petition the high court. He said this is a perfect time, considering the high court's conservative makeup. And this case gives the high court a chance to clarify once and for all a legal matter – plaintiffs' legal standing to file suit – that is always a contentious issue in cases like these that are filed against municipalities.

Guinn said if the plaintiffs prevail in cases like Ocala's, then any mention of God in a city's seal or programming would be jeopardized. He said Ocala's case has the potential to achieve legal landmark status.

The American Center for Law & Justice is representing the city for free. A lawyer from that group who spoke to council members during Friday's 30-minute meeting said the standing issue is ripe for clarification by the high court. In Ocala's case, she said, taxpayers did not fund the vigil and the people suing the city don't live in the city and thus don't pay any taxes.

The lawyer said while there's no guarantee that the court will take the case – most requests are turned down – she believes there's a good chance it will take this one because it's a good case for the Supreme Court to use as a means of clarifying the law.

Attorney Pat Gilligan
Attorney Pat Gilligan

If the city loses, it would be on the hook for the plaintiffs' lawyer fees, which are estimated at close to $300,000.

Lawyer Pat Gilligan, who used to be the city's attorney, briefed council members about the case at the meeting. He noted that Graham spoke with some of the people who felt offended about the vigil.

Gilligan said they introduced themselves to the chief at the event. Graham asked them if they wanted to speak, but they declined.

The issue is scheduled to be on the Aug. 16 council agenda.

Contact Austin L. Miller at austin.miller@starbanner.com

This article originally appeared on Ocala Star-Banner: Ocala, Florida asks US Supreme Court to hear prayer vigil lawsuit