Posted by: Patricia Salkin | November 10, 2008

11th Circuit Finds Invocations at the Start of Planning Commission Meetings Do Not Necessarily Violate the Establishment Clause

Taxpayers challenged the practice of offering religious invocations by volunteer members of different religions on a rotating basis at the beginning sessions of the meetings of the county commission and the county planning commission.  In finding that both boards were legislative in nature (the planning commission was deemed to be a creature of the county commission that assists its work under Georgia statutes), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals applied the test from Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), and agreed with the District Court that so long as the prayers did not advance or disparage a belief or affiliate government with a specific belief, there was no Establishment Clause violation.   Specifically, the Marsh court held that with respect to invocations at legislative meetings “[t]he content of the prayer is not of concern to judges where…there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.”

 

The Court did find, that during a two year period from 2003 to 2004, the method used by the deputy clerk of the planning commission to select the clergy was unconstitutional as the evidence indicated that she selected clergy who tended to categorically exclude other religions. Now the Board uses a random method of selection from a master list, which the Court found to be acceptable and appropriate.

 

 

Pelphrey v. Cobb County, GA, 2008 WL 4710693 (C.A. 11 (Ga) 10/28/2008).

 

The opinion can be accessed at: http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200713611.pdf


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