Federal Court Says Fla. County Board Cannot Discriminate Against Non-Theists

Below was copied from this LINK
A federal court last night struck down the Brevard County, Fla., Board of County Commissioners’ policy of excluding non-theists from giving opening invocations, a ruling that is being hailed by the groups that sponsored the litigation.

In its ruling, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida said a local governing body cannot limit its invocation speakers to those from monotheistic religions.

“It is unconstitutional for any governing body to discriminate against people who don’t believe in God,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and lead counsel in the case. “Yet that is exactly what Brevard County did through its invocation policy. We’re pleased that the court put an end to the county’s discriminatory practice.”

The Williamson v. Brevard County lawsuit was filed in 2015 by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida on behalf of multiple plaintiffs. It asserted that Brevard County’s rejection of atheists, humanists and other non-theists who sought to deliver solemnizing messages at the beginning of commission meetings violated the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.

The civil liberties groups noted that in a 2014 decision, Town of Greece v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that local governments cannot discriminate based on religion when selecting who will deliver invocations to open government meetings. Yet the Brevard board argued that it had no obligation to include non-theists.

The district court disagreed.

“ ‘[T]he great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation,’ ” the court wrote (quoting another case). “Regrettably, religion has become such an instrument in Brevard County. The County defines rights and opportunities of its citizens to participate in the ceremonial pre-meeting invocation during the County Board’s regular meetings based on the citizens’ religious beliefs. . . . [T]he County’s policy and practice violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article I, Sections 2 and 3 of the Florida Constitution.”

“We’re delighted such blatant discrimination against nonreligious citizens has been struck down,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Governmental bodies that open their meetings with invocations must not turn believers into insiders, and nonbelievers into outsiders, by excluding dissenting points of view.”

“The County’s outright exclusion of nonreligious speakers was unfair and unconstitutional,” said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.  “This decision sends a powerful reminder that no one should be treated as a second-class citizen by their local government.”

The plaintiffs in the case include the Central Florida Freethought Community (a chapter of FFRF) and its chair David Williamson; the Space Coast Freethought Association and its president Chase Hansel; the Humanist Community of the Space Coast and its president Keith Becher; and Brevard County resident Ronald Gordon.

The lawsuit has been litigated by Luchenitser and former Steven Gey Fellow Bradley Girard of Americans United; Rebecca S. Markert and Andrew L. Seidel of FFRF; Nancy Abudu and Daniel Tilley of the ACLU of Florida; and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Please ask people to apply to give the invocation

I wrote this letter to the editor a couple of years ago when Clay Yarborough was City Council President and Doyle Carter was chaplain:

http://members.jacksonville.com/opinion/letters-readers/2014-09-05/story/sundays-lead-letter-prayers-city-council-should-be-more

In the Supreme Court decision, Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Court emphasized that a government’s prayer practice must be “nondiscriminatory” and it must make reasonable efforts to include invocations from all members of the community, regardless of their faith. In fact, the completely open selection process was crucial to the prayers being upheld: “The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.” (Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, 12-696, 2014 WL 1757828 (U.S. May 5, 2014)) Therefore, excluding a particular faith group from consideration is unconstitutional. (Pelphrey v. Cobb County, 547 F.3d 1263, 1276 (11th Cir. 2008)).

The Supreme Court ruled in Greece v. Galloway that if city councils want to have prayers at government meetings, they need to rotate among all the groups in town.  When Greg Anderson and Lori Boyer were City Council President, they appointed chaplains that did an OK job rotating speakers.

I know some may wonder why it matters.  And I know many think that people should pray with like-minded folks rather than as a public display at a government meeting where people of various faiths are in attendance.

However, I think the invocation period could be used to help to make the various groups within our city feel welcome.  So in my view, it makes sense that the current chaplain (Doyle Carter) should want to reach out to the minority groups.

Quote from President Bush’s recent speech (LINK ) about the need for leadership:

This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed. (Applause.)

And it means that the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation.

We need a renewed emphasis on civic learning in schools. And our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.

If you know anyone (especially someone from a minority group) that is willing to give the invocation at a city council meeting, please ask them to contact Doyle Carter.   You can email him at doylec@coj.net.   If he refuses to put a speaker on the schedule from your group, please consider letting the watch group know at this link:

https://au.org/get-involved/report-a-violation/form

“It is unconstitutional for any governing body to discriminate against people who don’t believe in God,”

Forward:
“It is unconstitutional for any governing body to discriminate against people who don’t believe in God,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and lead counsel in the case. “Yet that is exactly what Brevard County did through its invocation policy. We’re pleased that the Court put an end to the County’s discriminatory practice.”

A federal court late last night struck down the Brevard County (Florida) Board of County Commissioners’ exclusionary practice of discrimination against the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), whose members have offered to give opening invocations at commission meetings.

The lawsuit has been litigated by Luchenitser and Bradley Girard of Americans United; Rebecca S. Markert and Andrew L. Seidel of FFRF; Nancy Abudu and Daniel Tilley of the ACLU of Florida; and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

In its ruling, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida said a local governing body cannot limit its invocation speakers to members of theistic communities.

“County commissioners are the elected officials who are closest to the people of Brevard. They failed to adequately represent Brevard’s pluralistic community by voting three times, unanimously, to codify religious discrimination against atheists. Now, we learned that the Court agrees.” said David Williamson, a plaintiff in the case.

The lawsuit was filed in 2015 by the CFFC, the Humanist Community of the Space Coast, the Space Coast Freethought Society, and some of their members. The groups asserted in the case that the Commission’s rejection of atheists, humanists, and other non-theists who sought to deliver solemnizing messages at the beginning of commission meetings violated the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.

Since a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Town of Greece v. Galloway, the CFFC has offered more than fifty invocations at city, town, and county government meetings across the region. Brevard County was the only government body that rejected CFFC’s requests for inclusion in the process.

” ‘[T]he great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation,’ ” the court wrote (quoting another case). “Regrettably, religion has become such an instrument in Brevard County. The County defines rights and opportunities of its citizens to participate in the ceremonial pre-meeting invocation during the County Board’s regular meetings based on the citizens’ religious beliefs…. [T]he County’s policy and practice violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article I, Sections 2 and 3 of the Florida Constitution.”

Of the decision, Keith Becher, a plaintiff in the case, said, “I am delighted the ruling favors equality. Atheists, non-believers, secular humanists and those from minority religions are an integral part of this community. We strive to be active participants and relish the opportunity to invoke the higher ideals that everyone in our community shares.”

LINK to Judges Order