September 2019 Church & State Magazine | Featured

Government officials in Brevard County, Fla., violated the Con­stitution by consistently relying on clergy from mainstream monotheistic religions to offer invocations before official meetings, a federal appeals court ruled July 8.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the Brevard County Commissioners’ invocation policy must change. The case, Wil­­liamson v. Brevard County, was brought by Americans United, the Am­erican Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida and the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of several non-theists whom commissioners have barred from offering invocations.

Nothing could be clearer from this record than that more than a few of the Commissioners rejected speakers based squarely on the nature of the religious beliefs they held.

~ Judge Stanley Marcus.

“Nothing could be clearer from this record than that more than a few of the Commissioners rejected speakers based squarely on the nature of the religious beliefs they held,” declared Judge Stanley Marcus.

Marcus added, “The discriminatory procedure for selecting invocation speakers followed in Brevard County is unconstitutional and it must be rejected. We need go no further today than to say this: in selecting invocation speakers, the Commissioners may not categorically exclude from consideration speakers from a religion simply because they do not like the nature of its beliefs.”

The court did not decide whether the commissioners must allow non-theistic groups to deliver invocations, however. The case now returns to a lower court for further proceedings.

AU and its allies filed the legal challenge July 7, 2015, after repeated efforts to convince the commissioners to change their invocation policy were unsuccessful.  Among the plaintiffs are the Central Florida Free­thought Community and its director, 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.

Chase Hansel, David Williamson and Keith Becher

(PHOTO: AU plaintiffs Chase Hansel, David Williamson and Keith Becher.)

The groups noted that the commission’s prayers tended to be Christian with an occasional Jewish speaker. An analysis of the 180 official commission meetings during the period of January 2010 to May 2015 found that 168 began with an invocation of some sort, usually by a Protestant minister. Four invocations were offered by rabbis, and in 12 instances, meetings began with a moment of silence.

In its ruling, the court relied heavily on statements some members of the commission gave during legal depositions. Some of the commissioners flatly said they would bar polytheists or Wiccans from delivering invocations. One member said that if a Sikh or a member of a Native American religion offered to give an invocation, he would “see what they had to say.” Another said he would “ask more questions” of a Hindu, and wasn’t sure about allowing polytheists to offer prayers. A third added that he would “have to see what was presented” if a polytheist offered to say a prayer.

The lawsuit charged that members of the Commission were clearly biased toward monotheistic faiths. They even codified that policy in a resolution the commission passed after receiving requests from non-theists to offer invocations. The resolution states in part that it was put in place “in recognition of the traditional positive role faith-based monotheistic religions have historically played in the community.”

But despite that language, some commissioners looked askance at minority monotheistic religions. Several said they would be unlikely to accept a prayer from a Rastafarian, which is a monotheistic faith.

Four commissioners also said they would not accept a prayer from a Deist, even though several of America’s Founding Fathers aligned with that movement.

Observed the court, “A bar on deism would exclude Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and many others among our Nation’s Founders from the opportunity to deliver an invocation before the Brevard County Board of Commissioners.”

Commissioners reserved their greatest contempt for non-theists. Com­­missioner Curt Smith bluntly told a local newspaper, “The invocation is for worshipping the God that created us.” Smith added that non-theists “are not going to take the place of the godly invocation. Absolutely not.”

Religious minorities and nonbelievers are equal members of society and they must be treated equally by their elected officials. The court’s decision today made clear that no one should be excluded from civic affairs because of their beliefs about God.

~ AU's Alex J. Luchenitser                                             

Americans United hailed the ruling. AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, who serves as lead counsel in the case, said in a press statement, “Brevard County Commissioners were using religion as the basis for discrimination by allowing only people of preferred faiths to offer invocations. Religious minorities and nonbelievers are equal members of society and they must be treated equally by their elected officials. The court’s decision today made clear that no one should be excluded from civic affairs because of their beliefs about God.”