September 2015 Church & State | Featured

As far as the Brevard County Board of Commissioners is concerned, non-theists are more than welcome to address their local officials during meetings – as long as they know their place.

“If other groups want to talk, we’re all for freedom of speech, but we also have a public comments section in our meetings, and we feel like that’s an appropriate place for those discussions to be had,” Tom Walker, Brevard County’s communications director, said July 2.

But there’s one place where non-believers aren’t welcome: at the podium giving an opening invocation. The board opens almost all of its meetings with a prayer, but since 2010 not one speaker chosen by the commissioners was affiliated with a religion or viewpoint besides Christianity or Judaism. Among the more than 150 invocations in the last five years, almost all were given by ordained Christian clergy. In fact, just four of those invocations were devoid of Christian messages.

 As a result of this exclusionary practice, which the board reaffirmed July 7, Americans United, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida filed a lawsuit on behalf of multiple plaintiffs who seek an opportunity to address the Brevard commissioners through an official pre-meeting prayer or message. In their filing for Williamson v. Brevard County, the civil liberties groups asserted that Brevard County’s persistent rejection of atheists, humanists and other non-theists who want to deliver solemnizing messages at the commencement of board meetings violates both the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.

Trouble escalated in Brevard – an east central county of more than half a million people – almost immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 2014 ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway. In that 5-4 decision, the high court said local governments have the right to open their meetings with predominantly Christian prayers. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion required, however, that local governments “maintain a policy of nondiscrimination” in deciding who may present invocations, and that the relevant policies or practices must not “reflect an aversion or bias . . . against minority faiths.”  Thus, in upholding the invocation practice of the town of Greece, the high court emphasized that the town’s “leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.”

In the wake of Greece, David Wil­liamson, a U.S. Navy veteran and ordained humanist celebrant, requested that a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC, a chapter of the FFRF that he founded) be permitted to offer an invocation before a board meeting. Despite the parameters handed down from the highest court in the United States, in August 2014 the board of commissioners voted 5-0 to prohibit a representative of CFFC from delivering a message to open a board session. Williamson was told his only option was to make statements during the “public comment” portion of meetings. At that time, the public comment segment was scheduled for the conclusion of the meetings.

“Honestly, we fully expected some pushback and we’ve gotten it by a few boards and commissions, but not at this level,” Williamson told Church & State. “While I can’t say I was surprised by it, for the Brevard County Commission to actually formalize a policy that so blatantly discriminates, solely on religious grounds, is truly disappointing. Even before the decision in Greece v. Galloway, this would have clearly been seen by any reasonable observer as unconstitutional.”

Yet, members of the Brevard County Board of Commissioners saw nothing wrong with their exclusionary action.

 “The prayer is delivered during the ceremonial portion of the county’s meeting, and typically invokes guidance for the County Commission from the highest spiritual authority, a higher authority which a substantial body of Brevard constituents believe to exist,” the board said in an explanatory letter.

Williamson is one of several non-theists who experienced discrimination at the hands of the county commissioners. In August 2014, Brevard resident Ronald Gordon, a U.S. Army veteran and atheist/agnostic who is also one of Americans United’s plaintiffs, requested to deliver an opening invocation, as did the Rev. Ann Fuller, a humanist and ordained Unitarian Universalist minister (though not an AU plaintiff). Neither was successful.     

In early 2015, Americans United and its allies took up the case. In a January 26 letter, the groups asked the commissioners to make invocations open to non-believers. That letter was met with silence. On May 26, a second letter was sent. In response, the board informed Americans United that it would next meet on July 7, at which time it would discuss the matter and deliberate a proposed resolution that, if adopted, “allows the traditional faith-based invocation prior to the beginning of the Board’s secular business agenda and subsequent ‘secular invocations’ during the Public Comment section of that secular agenda.”

AU noticed a pattern in the board’s invocations. Between January 1, 2010, and May 28, 2015, the Brevard commissioners held about 180 board-room meetings, according to AU’s lawsuit. Of those, about 168 began with a Christian or Jewish invocation of some sort. Just 12 meetings started with a moment of silence. Of the four invocations that had no Christian content, all were made by rabbis. Of the 164 Christian prayers or messages, just six were delivered by non-Protestant Christians.  

Sure enough, during its July 7 meeting the board voted to bar non-theists from offering remarks at the beginning of public sessions. One day before that vote, County Commissioner Curt Smith made it clear that he had no interest in including atheists in pre-meeting prayers.

“The invocation is for worshipping the God that created us,” Smith said, according to Florida Today. Non-theists “are not going to take the place of the godly invocation. Absolutely not.”

Given that attitude, Americans United and its allies saw little choice but to proceed with legal action.

“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,” asserted 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.”

When the lawsuit was filed, Americans United reiterated the need to end this obvious case of government-sponsored discrimination against non-belief.

 “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.”

Williamson said that it’s not unusual for non-believers to experience prejudice – even from government officials.

 “I am never surprised to find people who discriminate or who would agree with the commissioners’ personal feelings about non-theists,” Williamson said. “We deal with this as a fact of life. But the commissioners are charged with serving all constituents equally and in compliance with the law. They clearly were not doing that when they voted to discriminate against some of their own citizens simply based on their lack of religious beliefs. It is, in fact, their duty to protect their citizens from discrimination, not to be party to the discrimination themselves.”

Williamson added that if the commissioners would simply give non-theists a chance to deliver an invocation, they might be pleasantly sur­­prised by the message.

“People are often surprised by what they hear and they like it,” he said. “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.”

In addition to Williamson and Gordon, the plaintiffs in the case include the Central Florida Freethought Community; the Space Coast Freethought Association and its president Chase Hansel and the Humanist Community of the Space Coast and its president Keith Becher.

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; Nancy Abudu and Daniel Tilley of the ACLU of Florida and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.