By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A divided federal appeals court on Wednesday said the elected public board of commissioners in Jackson County, Michigan, did not violate the U.S. Constitution by opening monthly meetings with Christian prayers and asking audience members to join.
By a 9-6 vote, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati rejected claims by the plaintiff, Peter Bormuth, that the prayers violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause because the commissioners, all Christian, offered them.
Bormuth did not respond to requests for comment.
The majority said its decision conflicted with a July 14 ruling by the federal appeals court in Richmond, Virginia, rejecting a similar practice by Rowan County's Board of Commissioners in North Carolina.
Rowan County is weighing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which considers federal appeals court splits a key criterion for taking a case.
Bormuth, a self-described pagan and animist, claimed he was made to feel like he was "in church" and forced to worship Jesus Christ before participating in Jackson County board meetings.
He said one of the nine commissioners called him a "nitwit" for objecting, while two turned their backs while he spoke.
But in the majority opinion, Circuit Judge Richard Griffin called Jackson County's "religion-neutral" prayer practice consistent with Supreme Court precedents letting Nebraska's legislature and the upstate New York town of Greece open sessions with prayer led by clergy.
Griffin also said the board's asking attendees to please stand and assume a "reverent" position for invocations was not coercive.
"The solemn and respectful-in-tone prayers demonstrate the commissioners permissibly seek guidance to make good decisions that will be best for generations to come and express well-wishes to military and community members," Griffin wrote.
While the prayers' Christian nature offended Bormuth, "offense does not equate to coercion," Griffin added.
A dissenting judge, Karen Nelson Moore, accused the majority of extending constitutional protections to "a practice that excludes non-Christians from the prayer opportunity and expresses disgust at people who voice a different opinion."
The nine judges in the majority were appointed to the court by Republican presidents. Democratic presidents appointed five of the six dissenters.
Ken Klukowski, senior counsel for the nonprofit First Liberty Institute, which represented the board, in an interview said the appeals court split "skyrockets the odds" the Supreme Court might ultimately weigh in.
Wednesday's decision upheld a lower court ruling favoring Jackson County, which a three-judge appeals court reversed on Feb. 15. Jackson County is about 80 miles west of Detroit.
The case is Bormuth v County of Jackson, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 15-1869.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Jonathan Oatis)