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

How to apply to give the invocation from July 1, 2017 until June 30, 2018

If you know anyone that wants to give the invocation at a city council meeting, my understanding is that they just need to email Doyle Carter’s office at DoyleC@coj.net

Forward:
Thank you for your e-mail expressing your concerns, and for sharing the comments regarding the 2015 petitions. I have delegated the City Council Chaplain responsibility to Council Member Doyle Carter through my appointment of him to such position, and I trust that he will do a great job in such capacity. It appears that Council Member Carter is welcoming your suggestions regarding having invocations from diverse groups, including offering names and contact information of individuals.
Sincere regards,
Anna Lopez Brosche
Council Member At-Large Group 1
Office of the City Council

Invocation speakers July 2017 to June 2018 for Jacksonville City Council meetings

Contact info for council members this year

July 25–Rev. McGinley, pastor at Old Plank Rd Baptist.
August 8 –Pastor Keith Russell, Westside Baptist Church
August 22 — Adam Peterson – Rise Church
Sept 7 — Council Member Doyle Carter
Sept 12 — Meeting cancelled due to Irma
Sept 18 — Pat Archuleta – Chaplain of Cecil Field POW/MIA and Jesus Loves Veterans
Sept 26 –Pastor Mac Brunson – First Baptist Church Jacksonville
Oct 10 — Trinity United Methodist Church’s part time pastor and chaplain for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office  David S. Williams
Oct 24  Pastor Dwayne Sumner – West Normandy Baptist Church
Nov 14 –Chaplain Clarence Jarrell – JSO
Nov 28 – Bishop John E. Guns – St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church

Link to City Council meetings

They can’t ask the audience to rise or bow their heads

They can’t ask the audience to participate.  Council Member Morgan asked people to bow their heads when she said a prayer at the August 23rd meeting.  So I emailed her this note.

forward:
Honorable Council Member Morgan,
The invocation is supposed to be for the council members and not the audience.  You are not supposed to ask the audience to bow their heads.
You asked the audience to bow their heads in this session:
Here is the link to Jason R. Gabriel, General Counsel’s memo:

http://www.coj.net/city-council/docs/misc/ogc-invocationopinion-2014-09-20.aspx

 it is advisable   ….  to enlist best practices to seek to obtain a diverse panel of guest chaplains and to insure that no one attending a Council meeting feels coerced. Some suggestions include:

  • No person attending a city council meeting should be required to participate in any prayer.
  • Neither the council nor the clerk should ask about or review the content of any prayer.
  • No City official should  ask the audience to take any overt act either (bow head, stand up, etc.).
  • The clerk should not remove a congregation from the list of invitees or refuse to include one.
  • No speaker should offer a prayer at consecutive meetings or at more than three meetings in a year.
  • Hold invocations at the beginning of meetings.
  • Have a written statement acknowledging that the invocation policy is open to all and that the prayers are not intended to advance, proselytize, or disparage any one faith over others.
  • Publicize that the invocation is open to anyone by posting on the City website and/or announcing at Council meetings.
  • Actively reach out to non-traditional faith groups to increase the diversity of invocation speakers.

How to apply to be an invocation speaker from July 2016 to June 2017

Excerpt from an email I received from the assistant to the current city council president:

I appreciate you inquiring about the City of Jacksonville’s invocation policy.  Council President Boyer has selected Council Member Joyce Morgan to serve as the Council Chaplain this year.  In this role, Council Member Morgan is tasked with ensuring that a variety of faiths and beliefs are scheduled to offer the legislative invocation.  All religious denominations are welcome to apply to give the invocation by contacting Council Member Joyce Morgan’s office at 630.1389 or joycemorgan@coj.net.

Invocation speakers July 2016 to June 2017 for Jacksonville City Council meetings

Council member Morgan was the chaplain this fiscal year (2016-2017).  She achieved a certain level of diversity, yes?  I applaud her efforts.  Do you?  I hope future city council chaplains will either do away with the invocation period or work harder to invite speakers from diverse groups.  Jacksonville is a very diverse town.

July 26, 2016 –Kyle Reese.  You can hear it at this LINK .  Kyle Reese is a Baptist pastor and also on the board of OneJax..
August 9 —Pastor Messer ( LINK  of meeting)  with Trinity Baptist Church.
August 23 —Council Member Morgan gave the invocation and you can hear it at this LINK
Sept 13   – Father Nick Louh – St. John Greek Orthodox Church
Sept 27 –Bishop Michael Mitchell, St. Stephen A.M.E. Church
Oct 11 —  Pastor Joe Newton with  Connection Church of Jacksonville
October 25 –Bishop PERCY J. GOLDEN –chaplain of Fire fighters ?
Nov 9– Dr. Sharon Paryani, Local Spiritual Assembly, Baha’i Faith
Nov 22- Rabbi Yaakov Fisch, ETZ Chaim Synagogue
Dec 13–Rev. Susan Rogers, The Well at Springfield
Jan 10 — Dr. Mobeen Rathore, a Faith Leader of the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida
Jan 24–  Clayton Levins – You can hear introduction and prayer at this LINK –He is another Baptist.
Feb 14 —Rev. Dr. D. Lovett Sconiers, Chaplain & Religion Professor, Edward Waters College ..   LINK
Feb 28 —  Father Rafael Lavilla, St. Paul’s Catholic Church
March 14 –Deacon Patrick Goin, Holy Spirit Catholic Church
March 28 —Charles Christie –This LINK gives a little info about him.
LINK to invocation  He talks about Jesus but I’m not sure which Christian denomination.
April 11 — – Bishop George Davis, Impact Church
April 25 — A Hindu priest—  You can here the invocation at this LINK
May 9–Rev. Robert L. Morris, Jr.  of First Presbyterian Church
May 23 — Sukhbir Singh, Sikh Society of Northeast Florida
June 13 — Dr. Morgan Browning, Campus Pastor, First Baptist Church of Jacksonville
June 27 — Rev. Saundra Gadsden, Chaplain UF Health Jacksonville

Humanist Invocation on March 22, 2016

 

SCOTUS opinion in the Greece v. Galloway case did help somewhat, eh?   An atheist gave the invocation AFTER that ruling.  His application had been rejected in 2010 with this email:

From: Laquidara, Cindy [mailto:CindyL@coj.net]
Sent: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 3:18 PM
Cc: Loving, Suzie; Teodorescu, Adina; Laquidara, Cindy; Brown, Cheryl
Subject: City Council legislative invocation policy

Hello Mr. Coggins – Your email to Ms. Loving was referred to me for response.  Please note that this is a unique area of First Amendment law.  You are quite right that typically any government function or option must be made equally available, regardless of the content of the speech contained.  This application of First Amendment law, which arises out of the application of the Lemon test, is, however, inapplicable to this narrow area the establishment clause and legislative invocations.

The Supreme Court has recognized that legislative bodies may start their proceedings with a prayer.    This prayer is allowed so long as it is not proselytizing, or the advancement of a particular faith, or the disparagement of any faith.  In addition, the legislative body cannot be seen to be endorsing any particular faith.  This can be accomplished largely in two methods:  1)  by a fairly broad prayer in the Judeo-Christian genre, or by circulating the prayer among religions such that it is clear that the legislative body is not endorsing any particular faith.    Neither of these methods requires that a moment of silence, a non-established religion, or an atheist organization be given a role. We recognize that this is an extremely limited exception to the usual principals, but such was the determination of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Please do not hesitate to contact me should you have any additional questions.

Cindy A. Laquidara, General Counsel

Board Certified City, County and Local

Government Law

Office of General Counsel

117 W. Duval Street

Suite 480

Jacksonville, Florida 32202

Telephone:  (904) 630-1728

Facsimile:  (904) 630-8287 (RightFax)

Office Facsimile:  (904) 630-1731

cindyl@coj.net