Ocala violated First Amendment with prayer vigil, judge rules

A federal judge ruled that the City of Ocala violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution when it hosted a prayer vigil in 2014.

After nearly a decade of back-and-forth litigation, Judge Timothy Corrigan issued the ruling on Wednesday.

Since the lawsuit was filed by a group of atheists, the police chief died, the mayor left office, and the vigil hasn't been repeated. The judge asked both sides if it made sense to keep litigating, but both sides insisted on getting to a ruling.

In the 50-page ruling, Corrigan said the city crossed the line because it "conceived, organized, promoted, and conducted the prayer vigil…" which was "directed at the public and asked for public participation."

Lawrence Walters, a First Amendment attorney, said cases like this take time and can result in unpredictable decisions.

"The establishment clause prohibits the government from endorsing a religion, so the government cannot require citizens to pray, but on the other hand, the pre-exercise clause allows citizens to pray and protects the right to pray," Walters said. "Those two concepts are always in contention in religious cases."

Walters said the decision could set a legal precedent.

"Each of these court decisions are important," Walters said. "They can all be cited as persuasive precedent or persuasive rulings on how other courts should apply the law."

Judge Corrigan has already ruled in favor of the atheists in 2018, but in 2022, an appeals court told him to reconsider. That's because the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled in favor of a high school football coach fired over post-game prayer.

The judge found the two cases to be nothing alike, citing the designation of on-field prayer as private speech.

The city argued the vigil fit in with historical examples of government intertwined with prayer that date back to George Washington, "including legislative prayer and proclamations of National Day of Prayer."

The judge said, however, that those examples "were tangential or meant to solemnize other public business" while "the vigil was the event."

The American Humanist Association represented the atheists and sent FOX 35 News a statement.

"At a time when the separation of religion and government is under threat from those who care neither for ethics nor for democracy, this is a critically important decision that reminds the nation that our Constitution is still a bulwark that protects Americans against those who would prefer to have a theocratic regime in our republic."

Each plaintiff was awarded one dollar.

The city responded to FOX 35's request for comment by sending a memo.

It's from the city attorney to the city's media contact saying he's not ready to comment until a meeting with the city's attorneys in this case.