The Brevard County, Fla., Board of County Commissioners’ policy of excluding nontheists from offering pre-meeting invocations is unconstitutional, several civil liberties groups say in a federal lawsuit.
In a legal action filed today 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, the groups assert that Brevard County’s persistent rejection of atheists, humanists and other nontheists who want to deliver solemnizing messages at the commencement of board meetings violates the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.
“Brevard County’s invocation policy blatantly discriminates against people who do not believe in God,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United and lead counsel in the case. “Such rank discrimination is plainly unconstitutional.”
The lawsuit notes that in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear that local governments cannot discriminate based on religion when choosing who will deliver solemnizing statements to open government meetings. Yet Brevard County is doing exactly that by refusing to allow anyone who does not profess monotheistic beliefs to offer an official invocation.
“Over the last half-century, our country has made great progress — both legally and socially — toward eradicating discrimination and meeting the goal of equality for all, which lies at the heart of our Constitution,” asserts the lawsuit. “Discrimination based on race, gender, national origin, disability, and (more recently) sexual orientation has become prohibited or disfavored. Nevertheless, in Brevard County’s eyes, people who do not believe in God remain a disfavored minority against whom it is acceptable to discriminate.”
Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said: “The framers of our entirely secular and godless Constitution did not find it necessary to pray during the four months the Constitutional Convention met. Why then should it be necessary for county commissioners to pray over liquor licenses, variances and other lesser matters? But if religious citizens are permitted to open county board meetings with invocations, then secular invocations must also be permitted.”
Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said: “The government should never play favorites with belief. The county’s discriminatory policy is unfair and unconstitutional.”
ACLU of Florida Legal Director Nancy Abudu said: “If a government decides to have a forum that is open for public voices, then it must make it open to all voices – they don’t get to pick and choose. When the Board of County Commissioners blocks one group from having their voices heard, they are essentially saying to these citizens that their beliefs make them unwelcome in their own community. It’s unfair, discriminatory, and unconstitutional.”
The plaintiffs in the case include the Central Florida Freethought Community (a chapter of Freedom From Religion Foundation) 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 v. Brevard County is being litigated by Luchenitser and Americans United Legal Fellow Joshua Hoffer; Rebecca S. Markert and Andrew L. Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation; Abudu and Daniel Tilley of the ACLU of Florida; and Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
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.