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

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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.

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