FFRF, secular groups file Florida discrimination suit

The Brevard County, Fla., Board of Commissioners’ policy of excluding nontheists from offering premeeting invocations is unconstitutional, several civil liberties groups say in a federal lawsuit filed July 7 in U.S. District Court in Orlando.

The suit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida on behalf of multiple plaintiffs asserts that the county’s persistent rejection of atheists, humanists and other nontheists who want to deliver solemnizing messages at board meetings violates the U.S. and Florida constitutions.

Plaintiffs 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 framers of our entirely secular and godless Constitution did not find it necessary to pray during the four months the Constitutional Convention met,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Why then should it be necessary for county commissioners to pray over liquor licenses, variances and other lesser matters? But if religious citizens are permitted to open county board meetings with invocations, then secular invocations must also be permitted.”

“Brevard County’s invocation policy blatantly discriminates against people who do not believe in God,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United and lead counsel. “Such rank discrimination is plainly unconstitutional.”

The lawsuit notes that in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that local governments cannot discriminate based on religion when choosing who will deliver statements to open government meetings. This is the first legal challenge following the Greece decision’s provision for secular invocations.

Florida Today reported that the commission voted unanimously to affirm its policy on the same day the suit was filed by limiting invocations to representatives of the “faith-based community.” Commissioner Curt Smith’s resolution, approved without discussion, specifies that nonbelievers can only speak during the public comment portion of meetings.

Williamson said after the meeting that the resolution was “extremely disappointing. We just want equal protection under the law.”

In a statement when the suit was filed, Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said, “The government should never play favorites with belief. The county’s discriminatory policy is unfair and unconstitutional.”

ACLU of Florida Legal Director Nancy Abudu said, “If a government decides to have a forum that is open for public voices, then it must make it open to all voices. They don’t get to pick and choose.”

Williamson v. Brevard County is being litigated by Mach, Luchenitser and Americans United Legal Fellow Joshua Hoffer, Rebecca Markert and Andrew Seidel of FFRF and Abudu and Daniel Tilley of the ACLU of Florida.

Freedom From Religion Foundation