The Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting that a Florida county commissioners' board cease starting its meetings with a prayer.
A concerned local resident contacted FFRF to report that the Clay County Board of County Commissioners opens its meetings with commissioner-led prayers. These prayers are specifically Christian, including language such as "in the name of Jesus," "dear Heavenly Father," etc. Commissioners ask residents to participate in these sectarian prayers by bowing their heads or joining hands.
"Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Clay County board members. "The board ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion by scheduling, hosting, or conducting governmental prayers. Citizens, including Clay County's nonreligious citizens, are compelled to come before it on important matters"
To start with, the prayers exclude the 23 percent of Americans who are not religious. It is coercive, embarrassing, and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference or obeisance toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which their county commissioners clearly do. It is inappropriate and coercive for board members to direct meeting attendees to rise or otherwise show deference to their invocations.
Plus, local government officials should not be in the business of writing and offering prayers themselves. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Greece v. Galloway, in which it only approved opening a neutral forum for others, including non-Christians and atheists, to give invocations.
And, importantly, the United States was founded in part by refugees seeking freedom from government dictation of religion. Our nation is based on a godless Constitution, whose only references to religion in government are exclusionary. The framers of the Constitution did not find it necessary to pray during the four-month Constitutional Convention. Why it is necessary, then, for the Clay County Board of County Commissioners to pray over liquor licenses or sewers?
In order to demonstrate the Board of County Commissioners' respect for the diverse range of religious and nonreligious citizens living in Clay County, FFRF urges it to concentrate on civil matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual by ending the practice of hosting prayers at its meetings. Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers' time.
"Governmental public piety is not only unconstitutional, it is also hypocritical," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "None other than Jesus, in whose name the county commissioners pray, stated this in the Sermon on the Mount."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 nonreligious members and chapters all over the country, including more than 1,400 in Florida and a state chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community. FFRF's purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.