Four years ago, David Williamson, Ronald Gordon and other nontheists in Florida began making what should have been a simple, even generous request of the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners: The citizens asked for the opportunity to occasionally offer a few words of encouragement during the time reserved for invocations at the board’s public meetings.

The invocations offered at most of the commissioners’ meetings were almost exclusively Christian prayers (96 percent during a six-year period, according to AU’s research). Williamson, Gordon and others hoped to make the commissioners’ meetings more welcoming by including a little diversity in the beliefs represented in the invocations. They had no intention of speaking ill of other faiths, nor were they seeking to stop others from giving monotheistic prayers. They simply wanted to offer secular invocations that acknowledged shared American ideals.

Not only did commissioners refuse to allow the nontheists to offer invocations, they went a step further in 2015 by enacting an invocation policy to specifically exclude atheists, agnostics, Humanists and other nontheists.

Public meetings are vital government functions that should welcome all citizens to attend and participate. Invocation practices that only represent a majority faith and exclude religious minorities and nonbelievers can send the exact opposite message.

Americans United, joined by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida, stepped in and filed a federal lawsuit, Williamson v. Brevard County, on behalf of several individuals and three Florida nontheist organizations that object to the commissioners’ exclusionary policy. In addition to Williamson and Gordon, the plaintiffs include Brevard County residents Chase Hansel and Keith Becher and the organizations Central Florida Freethought Community, Space Coast Freethought Association and Humanist Community of the Space Coast.

We explained that the commissioners’ policy is an unconstitutional violation of religious freedom.

“No one should be excluded from civic affairs because they do not believe in God,” said AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, who is lead counsel in the case. “Prohibiting nonbelievers from solemnizing governmental meetings is religious discrimination, plain and simple.”

A U.S. District Court in Florida agreed with us last fall: “‘[T]he great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation,’” the court stated, quoting another court opinion. “Regrettably, religion has become such an instrument in Brevard County.”

But Brevard County Commissioners decided to keep fighting to exclude nontheists and appealed the case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Last week, AU and our allies filed our appellees’ brief with the 11th Circuit, which was drafted principally by Luchenitser and AU Legal Fellow Alison Tanner. “[T]he policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” the brief explains. “The Supreme Court and this Court have both held that the Establishment Clause prohibits governmental bodies from discriminating based on religion in deciding who may give opening invocations. The County’s policy does exactly that.”

Unfortunately, Brevard’s Board of County Commissioners isn’t the only government body that is less than welcoming to nontheists and religious minorities. AU represents citizens who are seeking to make invocations more inclusive in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, which also won’t permit nontheistic invocations.

The U.S. Supreme Court also is considering whether to review two cases – Lund v. Rowan County in North Carolina and Bormuth v. County of Jackson in Michigan – that involve county commissioners who deliver prayers that are exclusively Christian prior to their meetings. Americans United filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases and AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee argued in support of Jackson County resident Peter Bormuth before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year.

Public meetings are vital government functions that should welcome all citizens to attend and participate. Invocation practices that only represent a majority faith and exclude religious minorities and nonbelievers can send the exact opposite message.

(Photo: Plaintiffs Chase Hansel, David Williamson and Keith Becher)