Williamson v. Brevard County

Last modified 2016.02.26

  • Status Closed
  • Type Counsel
  • Court U.S. Court of Appeals, U.S. District Court
  • Issues Fighting Discrimination, Nontheist, Atheist, Humanist, Official Prayer, Racial Equality

Case Documents

For many years, the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners opened its meetings with an invocation. Between January 2010 and May 2015, 168 invocations were delivered by volunteers invited by the Board, and nearly all the invocations were overtly Christian.

Between May 2014 and July 2015, a number of humanists, atheists, and agnostics requested the opportunity to deliver a secular invocation at one of the Board’s meetings. The Board rebuffed each request, stating that a secular invocation would necessarily “disrespect . . . the beliefs of our faith-based community.” Then, on July 7, 2015, the Board adopted a formal policy limiting invocations to “traditional faith-based” content.

On the same day, we filed suit on behalf of organizations and individuals denied the opportunity to deliver secular invocations. Joined by the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we argued that the policy adopted by the Board violated the U.S. and Florida Constitutions, both of which prohibited the Board from discriminating against our clients on the basis of their beliefs. In particular, the Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway made clear that local governments must “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.” By turning away humanists, atheists, and agnostics, the Board violated this clear command.

In May 2016, both parties filed motions for summary judgment. In September 2017, the court determined that the County had engaged in deliberate discrimination and entangled itself in religious matters. The court ruled that the County’s practice violated the Establishment, Free Exercise, Free Speech, and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution and the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses of the Florida Constitution. The court ruled in favor of the County, however, on a claim that County Commissioners violated the Establishment Clause by instructing audience members to rise for opening invocations.

The County appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.  The Eleventh Circuit partially affirmed and partially vacated the district court’s decision. The court held that the county violated the Establishment Clause by discriminating in favor of mainstream, monotheistic religions. The court held that it did not need to resolve whether the County was obligated to allow invocations by non-theistic religions, and it did not reach the plaintiffs’ other claims.

The parties reached a settlement agreement in February 2020 awarding the plaintiffs injunctive relief consistent with the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, attorney’s fees, and $60,000 in damages. In January 2021, David Williamson, the lead plaintiff in the case, delivered what is believed to be the first ever secular invocation to open a meeting of the County Board.

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