A federal court ruling in a case involving the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its local chapter has provided a huge victory to those fighting for state-church separation.
In a decision released late Saturday, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida struck down the Brevard County, Fla., Board of County Commissioners’ exclusion of nontheists from giving pre-meeting invocations. In its ruling, the court says a local governing body cannot limit invocation officiants exclusively to those from monotheistic traditions.
“The great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation,” the court states in its concluding section, quoting another recent decision. “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. As explained above, the county’s policy and practice violate the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article I, Sections 2 and 3 of the Florida Constitution.”
The plaintiffs in the case include the Central Florida Freethought Community (a chapter of Freedom From Religion Foundation) and its chair David Williamson (pictured); 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 three civil rights groups that initiated the legal proceedings are hailing the judgment.
“We’re delighted such blatant discrimination against nonreligious citizens has been struck down,” says 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 other organizations involved in the litigation agree.
“It is unconstitutional for any governing body to discriminate against people who don’t believe in God,” says 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 prayer 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 nontheists who sought to deliver solemnizing messages at the beginning of board meetings violated the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.
The civil liberties groups noted that in its 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 nontheists. The court disagreed.
The only major part of the challenge that plaintiffs did not prevail on was their claim that the commissioners’ directives to the audience to rise for prayers were unconstitutionally coercive. The court reasoned that Becher and Williamson were not actually coerced to rise because they stayed seated or were already standing.
The lawsuit is being litigated by Rebecca S. Markert and Andrew L. Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation; Luchenitser and Steven Gey Fellow Bradley Girard of Americans United; Nancy Abudu and Daniel Tilley of the ACLU of Florida; and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with almost 30,000 nonreligious members and chapters all around the country, including 1,400-plus and a chapter in Florida.
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.