Federal judge rules that atheists can give opening invocations
A federal judge ruling in a case involving FFRF and its central Florida chapter has provided a huge victory to those fighting for state-church separation.
In a decision released Sept. 30, U.S. District Judge John Antoon II, in 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 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.
Williamson, an FFRF member, said Brevard County is the only government body not to give his organization an opportunity to present an invocation. He said more than 20 counties, cities and towns in central Florida have agreed to do so.
"Nobody has given us the grief or the pushback that Brevard County has given us," Williamson told Florida Today. "It's been unsettling and disappointing to be treated like second-class citizens."
According to Courthouse News, court documents show that between 2010 and 2016, all but seven invocations at county board meetings were given by Christians. The others were prayers given by those of the Jewish faith. In depositions, some commissioners expressed an unwillingness to allow Muslims or Hindus to give the pre-meeting prayer.
"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."
Brevard County Attorney Scott Knox said he will recommend to the County Commission that the county appeal the judge's ruling.
The Williamson v. Brevard County lawsuit was filed in 2015 by FFRF, 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. 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 lawsuit is being litigated by Rebecca S. Markert and Andrew L. Seidel of the FFRF; 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.