Supreme Court sends back appeal of woman ordered by police to stop praying at home

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ordered a new round of hearings in the case of a Kansas woman who accused police officers of blocking her from praying in her own home.

Mary Anne Sause, a retired nurse living in a housing project, sued two officers from the Louisburg, Kansas, police department who came to her apartment to investigate a complaint that her radio was too loud. According to her lawsuit, they told her that the Constitution was "just a piece of paper that doesn't work here" and that, for refusing to open the door the first time they knocked, she was going to jail.

When she heard she might be arrested, she got down on a rug and began praying, but the officers demanded that she get up and stop. They issued her two tickets and told her to turn down the radio. Her lawsuit said the officers interfered with her First Amendment right by forcing her to stop praying solely to harass her.

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Supreme Court Justices

John Roberts, Chief Justice

Born: 1955

Joined Supreme Court: 2005

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Born: 1933

Joined Supreme Court: 1993

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal

(Photo by Dennis Brack/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Anthony Kennedy

Born: 1936

Joined Supreme Court: 1988

Appointed by: Ronald Reagan

Votes: Conservative/Center

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Clarence Thomas

Born: 1948

Joined Supreme Court: 1991

Appointed by: George H.W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas testifies during a hearing before the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee April 15, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Stephen Breyer

Born: 1938

Joined Supreme Court: 1994

Appointed by: Bill Clinton

Votes: Liberal/Center

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer speaks at the Harvard University Institute of Politics John F. Kennedy School of Government John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on November 6, 2015 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

Samuel Alito

Born: 1950

Joined Supreme Court: 2006

Appointed by: George W. Bush

Votes: Conservative

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito speaks during the Georgetown University Law Center's third annual Dean's Lecture to the Graduating Class in the Hart Auditorium in McDonough Hall February 23, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sonia Sotomayor

Born: 1954

Joined Supreme Court: 2009

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States Sonia Sotomayor discusses her book 'My Beloved World' presented in association with Books and Books at Bank United Center on February 1, 2013 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Vallery Jean/FilmMagic)

Elena Kagan

Born: 1960

Joined Supreme Court: 2010

Appointed by: Barack Obama

Votes: Liberal

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Elena Kagan speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit on October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch participates in taking a new family photo with his fellow justices at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Police officers are generally immune from lawsuits involving what they do on duty, because the courts don't want to constantly second-guess their conduct. But courts will allow lawsuits to proceed if officers violate clearly established constitutional rights.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver threw Sause's case out, concluding that while the conduct of the officers was unprofessional, there was no court decision finding a First Amendment violation based on facts like those in her case.

Her lawyers urged the Supreme Court to reverse that ruling. "Any reasonable officer would have known that the officers' alleged conduct was unconstitutional," said Bradley Hubbard of Dallas, who filed court papers on her behalf.

But the officers said the order to stop praying was necessary in order to allow them to continue talking to her during their investigation of the noise complaint. They argued that no courts have ever found a constitutional violation in telling someone to stop praying under such circumstances.

In a unanimous, unsigned opinion issued Thursday, the Supreme Court said it needs to know more facts before it can evaluate what happened. Her lawsuit doesn't say, the court noted, "what, if anything, the offers wanted her to do at the time when she was allegedly told to stop praying."

The court sent the case back to the lower courts to seek answers to those questions.

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