FFRF, ACLU, AU win Fla. atheist invocation case

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals today unanimously ruled that the Brevard County, Fla., Commissioners’ policy of using religious beliefs to determine who can offer invocations at public meetings is unconstitutional, discriminatory and a violation of religious freedom. 

The ruling came in the case Williamson v. Brevard County, which was brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida on behalf of several nontheists whom commissioners have barred from offering invocations.

“The discriminatory procedure for selecting invocation speakers followed in Brevard County is unconstitutional and it must be rejected,” writes Judge Stanley Marcus in the opinion. “We need go no further today than to say this: In selecting invocation speakers, the commissioners may not categorically exclude from consideration speakers from a religion simply because they do not like the nature of its beliefs.”

“The commissioners have favored some religions over others, and barred those they did not approve of from being considered,” adds Marcus. “This plainly violates the principle of denominational neutrality found at the heart of the Establishment Clause.”

FFRF is pleased at the ruling.

“We’re delighted the appeals court has asserted that such blatant discrimination against nontheists cannot stand,” 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 litigating organizations agree.

Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, who is lead counsel in the case, says: “Brevard County Commissioners were using religion as the basis for discrimination by allowing only people of preferred faiths to offer invocations. Religious minorities and nonbelievers are equal members of society and they must be treated equally by their elected officials. The court’s decision today made clear that no one should be excluded from civic affairs because of their beliefs about God.”

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, says: “There should never be a religious litmus test for participation in local government meetings. The Brevard County Commissioners have been playing favorites with faith, and we’re pleased that, once again, the courts have told them that enough is enough.”

Williamson v. Brevard County was filed in 2015 to challenge the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners’ unconstitutional policy of excluding nontheists from delivering invocations at board meetings — an opportunity that is offered only to citizens with favored monotheistic beliefs.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in September 2017 agreed with the plaintiffs that the commissioners’ practice of excluding nontheists violated the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs in the case include the FFRF chapter Central Florida Freethought Community and its director, 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 is being litigated for FFRF by Legal Director Rebecca S. Markert and Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel; Americans United by Luchenitser, Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Legal Fellow Alison Tanner; for the ACLU of Florida by Daniel Tilley; and for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief by Daniel Mach.

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RESOURCES:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 31,000 nonreligious members and several chapters all around the country, including 1,600-plus members 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.

For nearly 100 years, the ACLU has worked in courts, legislatures, and communities to protect the constitutional rights of all people. With a nationwide network of offices and millions of members and supporters, we take up the toughest civil liberties fights. Beyond one person, party, or side — we the people dare to create a more perfect union. Learn more at aclu.org.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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