Church-state separation advocates today urged the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to affirm a district court’s opinion that the Brevard County, Fla., Board of County Commissioners’ policy of excluding nontheists from delivering invocations at board meetings is an unconstitutional violation of religious freedom.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida made this request in their appellees’ brief in the case Williamson v. Brevard County.
The federal lawsuit was filed in 2015 on behalf of several individuals and three Florida nontheist organizations who object to the Brevard County Commissioners’ refusal to allow atheists, Humanists and other nontheists to deliver secular, solemnizing invocations during public meetings – an opportunity that is given to citizens with monotheistic beliefs.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in September 2017 agreed with the plaintiffs that the commissioners’ practice of excluding nontheists violated the U.S. Constitution. “‘[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.”
“[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.”
Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser, who is lead counsel in the case, said: “No one should be excluded from civic affairs because they do not believe in God. Prohibiting nonbelievers from solemnizing governmental meetings is religious discrimination, plain and simple.”
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said: “Courts have historically recognized that the government may not turn believers into insiders, and nonbelievers into outsiders. Governmental bodies opening their meetings with invocations can’t exclude dissenting points of view.”
ACLU Director of the Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief Daniel Mach said: “The county has imposed a religious litmus test on civic participation, shirking its constitutional duty to treat all local residents fairly and equally.”
The plaintiffs in the case include the Central Florida Freethought Community (a chapter of FFRF) and its chairman, 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.
The lawsuit is being litigated for Americans United by Luchenitser, Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Steven Gey Legal Fellow Alison Tanner; for FFRF by Rebecca S. Markert and Andrew L. Seidel; for the ACLU of Florida by Nancy Abudu and Daniel Tilley; and for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief by Mach.
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.