Ocala Prayer Vigil Ruled Unconstitutional

TALLAHASSEE — Nearly a decade after the event was held amid a crime spree, a federal judge Wednesday ruled that the city of Ocala violated the U.S. Constitution in organizing and carrying out a prayer vigil.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan issued a 50-page decision that sided with atheists, who argued the prayer vigil in a town square violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Corrigan wrote that the idea for the vigil came from a meeting at the Ocala Police Department and was “advertised, and completed through the actions of the mayor, the chief of police and the Ocala Police Department, including its employees and staff.”

“If individuals or religious groups had organized a prayer vigil and gathered in the downtown square in the city of Ocala to pray for an end to violent crime (even with law enforcement attending), the First Amendment to the United States Constitution would have protected the ‘free exercise’ of their religion,” Corrigan wrote. “But because the city conceived, organized, promoted, and conducted the prayer vigil, it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

Subscribe to The Florida Jolt Newsletter!

Corrigan in 2018 also ruled that the vigil was unconstitutional, but the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2022 directed him to reconsider the case. That directive came after a U.S. Supreme Court opinion supported a Bremerton, Wash., high-school football coach who lost his job after praying on the field following games.

But in Wednesday’s ruling, Corrigan said the facts of the case involving the football coach are “far different from those here.”

Corrigan wrote that Ocala argued the prayer vigil was “permissible because it fits in with other historical examples dating back to George Washington of government and prayer being intertwined, including legislative prayer and proclamations of National Day of Prayer.” But he rejected such arguments.

“Unlike legislative prayer, the prayer vigil was directed at the public and asked for public participation. … Moreover, the prayer vigil was the event and dissimilar to legislative prayers because it did not involve prayers that were tangential to or meant to solemnize other public business,” the Jacksonville-based judge wrote.

The vigil was held Sept. 24, 2014, amid a spate of shootings in the Ocala area. Plaintiffs Art Rojas, Lucinda Hale, Daniel Hale and Frances Jean Porgal, represented by the American Humanist Association, filed the lawsuit in November 2014 after attending the vigil, according to court documents. It named as defendants the city, then-Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn and then-Police Chief Greg Graham, who died in 2020.

Follow Florida Jolt on Twitter

In addition to the idea for the vigil originating from a meeting in Graham’s office, Corrigan wrote that the police department promoted the event in a letter posted on Facebook and with a flyer that included an image or praying hands. He also wrote that uniformed Ocala Police Department chaplains were among the people on the stage during the vigil.

A footnote in the ruling said Daniel Hale and Porgas died in the course of the case. Corrigan awarded “nominal” damages of $1 to each plaintiff but also said the plaintiffs could file a motion to recover attorney fees from the city.

Other stories you may want to read:

Jodi Schwartz: From ‘Never Walking Again’ to Trying to Flip PBC Red

Share via
Share via
Thank you for sharing! Sign up for emails!
Making our country Great Again and keeping America First takes teamwork.

Subscribe to our newsletter, join our team of Patriots, and read real conservative news you can trust.

Invalid email address
Give it a try, you can unsubscribe anytime.
Send this to a friend