Official Prayer

Florida County’s Secular Invocation Respects Diversity

  Rob Boston

As Americans United noted yesterday, something historic has happened in Brevard County, Fla.: David Williamson, a director and co-founder of the Central Florida Freethought Community, offered what is believed to be the first-ever secular invocation to open a meeting of the Board of County Commissioners.

There’s an interesting backstory here: Brevard County had been opening its meeting with invocations – always featuring speakers from large, monotheistic religions – for years. Yet when county residents offered to give secular invocations, they were denied.

In 2015, Americans United, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida joined forces and filed litigation over this issue, representing eight nontheist individuals and groups. All we sought was equal time: If religious invocations were given, why not have a secular one on occasion?

In July 2019, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling making it clear that county officials had no right to engage in religious discrimination when selecting people to deliver invocations. A few months after that, the case was settled. As part of the settlement, the county agreed not to resume its past practice of discriminating against people who don’t belong to mainstream, monotheistic religions when selecting invocation speakers. This opened the door for a secular invocation.

Williamson offered the invocation yesterday. You can read all of it here or watch it here. This passage is worth highlighting: “Knowing that our words, our decisions, and our actions directly impact so many others, we strive to make compassion the foundation for our important work here today and that we serve with integrity and kindness towards one another and to all those you serve as our representatives in local government. … May we strive for balance between listening and reflecting; between speaking and acting.”

It’s a good sentiment, one that both religious and non-religious people can support.

In some parts of Florida, misguided political leaders have walked out of secular invocations and refused to listen to them. Brevard County has chosen a better course, one that recognizes that a county with more than 600,000 residents will include a variety of religious and non-religious views, all of which deserve to be represented by their government.

Americans United is pleased that we and our allies were able to bring this case to a successful conclusion, one that embraces and respects the diversity of Brevard County, the state of Florida and indeed our entire nation. Join us to help make more legal victories like this possible.

Photo: David Williamson offers an invocation before a meeting of the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners. Screenshot from Central Florida Freethought Community’s Facebook page.

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