Federal Court Ruling Supports Religious Freedom, Strikes Down Florida County’s Prayer Practice

Over the weekend, a federal court struck down a Florida county’s practice of denying atheists, humanists and other non-theists the opportunity to offer invocations at the start of the county commission’s meetings.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida ruled the policy of Brevard County’s Board of County Commissioners to allow only monotheistic, overwhelmingly Christian invocations violated both the U.S. and Florida Constitutions – namely by the government showing favoritism for certain faiths.

“‘[T]he great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation,’” the court wrote (quoting another case). “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. …[T]he County’s policy and practice violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article I, Sections 2 and 3 of the Florida Constitution.”

Americans United and our allies filed a federal lawsuit, Williamson v. Brevard County, in 2015 on behalf of several Brevard County residents and organizations after the county commissioners refused to allow residents to offer non-theistic invocations. A review of the county’s prayer practices found that during a six-year span that included 195 meeting invocations, 96 percent of them were given by Christian faith leaders and/or contained Christian content.

Pastor Jason Linkous of New Life Christian Fellowship Church offers the invocation during the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners' Aug. 22 meeting.

In 2014, David Williamson, a U.S. Navy veteran and ordained humanist celebrant, requested that a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC, a Freedom From Religion Foundation chapter that he had founded) be permitted to offer an invocation. He was denied.

Later that year, Brevard residents Ronald Gordon, a U.S. Army veteran and an atheist/agnostic, and the Rev. Ann Fuller, a humanist and ordained Unitarian Universalist minister (she is not a plaintiff in the case), also requested opportunities to deliver invocations. They also were denied.

In early 2015, Americans United joined FFRF, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU’s Florida chapter in writing to Brevard County on behalf of Williamson, Fuller and Chase Hansel, an atheist and president of the Space Coast Freethought Association, to request that the commissioners (who included newly elected members) give the non-theists an opportunity to give an invocation. Not only were they denied, but commissioners later that year formalized their policy of only allowing monotheistic invocations.

Commissioners misclassified the intent of the non-theists as trying to denigrate Christianity and other monotheistic religions. In reality, the non-theists had no intention of speaking ill of other faiths, nor were they seeking to stop others from giving monotheistic prayers. Rather, they simply wanted the chance to occasionally offer words of encouragement to their government officials and solemnize the meetings in a way that was inclusive to people of all faiths.

“People are often surprised by what they hear, and they like it,” Williamson previously told AU’s Church & State magazine of the non-theistic invocations offered elsewhere in Florida. “All of the invocations conducted in central Florida thus far have been radically inclusive of everyone in attendance, celebrated the diversity of the community and acknowledged that together we can face the challenges that come our way. Humanistic values are shared by nearly everyone in attendance – whether they admit it or not.”

“It is unconstitutional for any governing body to discriminate against people who don’t believe in God,” Alex J. Luchenitser, AU’s associate legal director and lead counsel in the case, said in response to Saturday’s ruling. “Yet that is exactly what Brevard County did through its invocation policy. We’re pleased that the court put an end to the county’s discriminatory practice.”

The plaintiffs in Williamson v. Brevard County include: Williamson and CFFC; Gordon; Hansel and the Space Coast Freethought Association; and the Humanist Community of the Space Coast and its president Keith Becher.

The excerpt of the court’s opinion mentioned above includes a quotation from a positive ruling in Lund v. Rowan County. In July, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a North Carolina county’s practice of opening its meetings with exclusively Christian prayers given by commissioners themselves. The 4th Circuit found Rowan County’s practice to be unconstitutional, noting: “The [First Amendment] does not permit a seat of government to wrap itself in a single faith.”

First Liberty Institute, the Religious Right legal group representing Rowan County, said it will likely appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Given that the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September came to a different conclusion in a Michigan case, Bormuth v. County of Jackson, and ruled in favor of commissioners’ practice of offering exclusively Christian prayers themselves, the split decision by the Circuit Courts increases the likelihood that legislative prayer issues will eventually return to the U.S. Supreme Court. The issue in the Brevard case – whether non-theists may be excluded from the invocation opportunity – is different from the issues in the Michigan and North Carolina cases, however, so Supreme Court review of those cases may not affect the Brevard case.

AU will continue to fight for religious freedom and to ensure government spaces remain inclusive for people of all faiths. In addition to representing the plaintiffs in the Florida case, AU filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the Michigan and North Carolina cases, and AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee participated in oral arguments in support of plaintiff Peter Bormuth in Michigan. AU also represents the plaintiffs in Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a case challenging the Pennsylvania House’s refusal to allow non-theists to offer secular invocations.