Clarence Thomas Breaks With Supreme Court Over Atheists' Lawsuit

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas broke with the court's other judges in a case involving a dispute between a Florida city and a group of atheists.

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled against hearing an appeal brought by the Florida city of Ocala which sought to dismiss a lawsuit filed by several atheists who argued that the city violated First Amendment rights for a 2014 prayer vigil following a shooting incident.

According to Reuters, Justice Thomas was the only judge to dissent from the court's decision to deny the appeal and said in an opinion that he had "serious doubts" about the lawsuit brought by the atheists, which are being represented by the American Humanist Society.

Clarence Thomas
United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas poses for an official portrait at the East Conference Room of the Supreme Court building on October 7, 2022, in Washington, D.C. On Monday, March 6, 2023, Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the court's opinion in a recent argument involving First Amendment rights. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The decision on Monday comes several months after the Supreme Court gave a decision siding with a high school football coach who was told to stop praying after games. The court ruled that the coach was protected by the First Amendment and was allowed to pray with his team after games. The former coach, Joseph Kennedy, was initially told by Bremerton High School in Washington to stop the prayer services, but he continued anyway.

The decision to decline the appeal in the City of Ocala v. Rojas case on Monday stems from a 2014 incident that prompted a prayer service to be held by the city.

According to Reuters, a shooting incident where three children were struck by gunfire, prompted the city of Ocala to hold a prayer vigil in an effort to call for an end to crime.

The plaintiffs in the case are atheists and said in a court filing that the prayer vigil featured members of the Ocala Police Department participating in "religious worship," "responsive chanting," and encouraged prayer of the "Judeo-Christian religion," Reuters reported.

The plaintiffs also argued that the prayer service "was coercive in that it pressured community members to accept theistic religious views," according to Reuters.

On the other hand, the city argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed and that the plaintiffs did not suffer any legal injuries and instead voluntarily attended the prayer vigil.

In a statement sent to CNN, an attorney representing the city of Ocala, Jay Sekulow, said, "We're going to continue to litigate the case. And we'll raise – continue to raise the issue of standing and, of course, the Establishment Clause." Newsweek reached out to the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing the city of Ocala in the case.

In a statement, Sunil Panikkath, the President of the American Humanist Association said, "Today's decision to send Ocala back to the district court reinforces what the American Humanist Association has long fought for: government entities cannot coercively promote religious practices."

"As opponents to the separation of religion and government continue their anti-democratic agenda in their attempts to obliterate the line between church and state, our work defending that separation becomes ever more important to ensure the religious freedom of all Americans," the statement added.

Newsweek was directed to the statement from Panikkath after reaching out to the American Humanist Association for comment.

"This Court's intervention has become increasingly necessary, as time has demonstrated that this problem is not going away by itself," Justice Thomas wrote in his dissenting opinion.

The case now returns to lower courts, where it could be dismissed on alternative grounds, NBC reported.

Update: 3/6/23 1:55 p.m. EST. This story has been updated to include a statement from the American Humanist Association.