Nontheist, Atheist, Humanist

AU In Federal Appeals Court Argued For Inclusive Invocations In Florida

  Liz Hayes

Yesterday before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Miami, Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser explained that the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners is discriminating against nontheists in their community.

A number of nontheists in the central Florida county along the Atlantic coast have been making a simple, even generous request of the Brevard County Commissioners: They would like the opportunity to offer a nontheistic invocation during the time reserved for opening invocations at the commission’s public meetings.

These Brevard Humanists and atheists hoped to make the commissioners’ meetings more welcoming by including some diversity in the beliefs represented by the invocations, which have been almost exclusively Christian (96 percent during a six-year period, according to the court record). The Brevard nontheists had no intention of speaking ill of other faiths, nor were they seeking to stop anyone else from giving monotheistic prayers. They simply wanted to offer nontheistic invocations that acknowledged shared American ideals.

Not only did the commissioners refuse to allow the nontheists to offer invocations, but they went a step further in 2015 by enacting a policy to specifically exclude invocations by atheists, agnostics, Humanists and other nontheists.

That’s when Americans United, joined by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida, stepped in to file a federal lawsuit, Williamson v. Brevard County, on behalf of several individuals and three Florida nontheist organizations that object to the commissioners’ exclusionary policy. The plaintiffs in the case include the Central Florida Freethought Community and its director David Williamson; the Space Coast Freethought Association, its president Chase Hansel and one of its members, Ronald Gordon; and the Humanist Community of the Space Coast and its president Keith Becher. 

A U.S. District Court in Florida agreed with us that Brevard’s policy was unconstitutional: “‘[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 in 2017, quoting another court opinion. “Regrettably, religion has become such an instrument in Brevard County.”

But Brevard County Commissioners wished to continue to discriminate against nontheists and appealed the case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where oral argument was heard yesterday.

Luchenitser argued the case on behalf of our plaintiffs and explained to the court that Brevard’s policy is unconstitutional because it violates fundamental constitutional prohibitions against religious discrimination. As Courthouse News reported, he told the court yesterday that the commissioners enacted a “discriminatory policy that treats atheists and humanists as second-class citizens.”

The court record also contains statements by commissioners that showed favoritism for Christianity or bias against other faiths, including Islam, deism, polytheism and Wicca.

“Don’t you have a problem with the selection process because your commissioners say they would bar some religions?” Judge Stanley Marcus asked yesterday.

Public meetings are vital government functions that should welcome all citizens to attend and participate. Invocation practices that only represent a majority faith and exclude people who don’t believe in it can send the exact opposite message.

(PHOTO: Plaintiffs Chase Hansel, David Williamson and Keith Becher)

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