In a victory for religious freedom for all residents of Brevard County, Fla., the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners today agreed not to resume its past practice of discriminating against people who don’t belong to mainstream, monotheistic religions when selecting invocation speakers to open board meetings.
The commissioners have approved an agreement to settle Williamson v. Brevard County, a federal lawsuit filed in 2015 by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida and the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of nontheists whom the board had barred from offering opening invocations.
The settlement agreement implements a July 2019 decision of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which made clear that government officials must not engage in religious discrimination when selecting people to deliver opening invocations.
Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United and lead counsel in the case: “This settlement protects the religious freedom of everyone in Brevard County. No one should be excluded from participating in local government because of their beliefs about religion.”
Plaintiff Keith Becher, president of Humanist Community of the Space Coast: “We are pleased with the settlement and happy to see Brevard County do the right thing by agreeing to it. Local governments in Florida, if they continue to have pre-meeting invocations, should respect the diversity of religious beliefs in their communities by abstaining from religiously discriminatory practices as required by the 11th Circuit’s decision. In fact, a great way to make people of all beliefs feel welcomed at public meetings is not opening with an invocation at all.”
Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief: “This settlement vindicates the constitutional rights of Brevard County residents. There should never be a religious litmus test for civic participation.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF: “We are satisfied with the settlement. Official invocation policies shouldn’t be favoring certain religious beliefs, no matter how dominant they are.”
The plaintiffs in the case include 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, Becher; and Brevard County resident Ronald Gordon.
The case litigation team included Luchenitser, Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Legal Fellow Alexander Gouzoules at Americans United; Legal Director Rebecca S. Markert and Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel of FFRF; Daniel Tilley of the ACLU of Florida; and Mach of the national ACLU.
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.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based national organization dedicated to the separation of state and church, with more than 31,000 nonreligious members and chapters all around the country, including almost 1,600 members and a chapter in Florida.
For 100 years, the ACLU has worked in courts, legislatures, and communities to protect the constitutional rights of all people. With a nationwide network of offices and millions of members and supporters, we take up the toughest civil liberties fights. Beyond one person, party, or side — we the people dare to create a more perfect union. Learn more at aclu.org.
(PHOTO: Plaintiffs Chase Hansel, David Williamson and Keith Becher.)