Discrimination in Social Services

AU Scores A Victory For Religious Freedom And Inclusive Public Meetings In Florida

  Rob Boston

A few years ago, Americans United was approached by some residents of central Florida who had a problem: The Brevard County Board of County Commissioners had a practice of opening its meetings almost always with Christian prayers. They were absolutely not interested in hearing secular invocations.

In fact, a review of the county’s prayer practices found that during a six-year period that included 195 meeting invocations, 96 percent of them were given by Christian faith leaders and/or contained Christian content.

Some local residents tried to change that. David Williamson, a U.S. Navy veteran and ordained Humanist celebrant, requested that a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community be given the opportunity to offer an opening invocation. The board said no. Not long after that, Ronald Gordon, an atheist/agnostic U.S. Army veteran, and the Rev. Ann Fuller, a Humanist ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, also requested opportunities to deliver opening invocations. They too were denied.

In 2015, the board went further and formalized a policy that permitted only “traditional faith-based invocation[s]” at the opening of its meetings. Americans United, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Florida then filed a lawsuit challenging the policy on behalf of Williamson, Gordon and other local residents and organizations.

Two federal courts ruled against the board, and now the case, Williamson v. Brevard County, has been settled. The board, which now opens its meetings with a moment of silence, has agreed not to reinstitute its old practice of discriminating against people who don’t belong to mainstream, monotheistic religions when selecting invocation speakers.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 allowed local communities to open their meetings with prayers, even if they were often Christian. But in its ruling, the high court also stressed the need for inclusion. The case, Town of Greece v. Galloway (which was sponsored by Americans United), challenged a prayer policy in the town of Greece, N.Y. As in Brevard, the legislative prayers in Greece were often Christian, but there was a key difference: Greece officials were willing to allow atheists, Wiccans, and other non-monotheists to deliver invocations on occasion. That element was missing in Brevard County, where all the opening invocations were delivered by representatives of traditional monotheistic religions, while other belief systems – including nontheists, polytheists and deists – were excluded.

Just to be clear, Americans United opposes official, government-sponsored prayers before legislative meetings. But the Supreme Court has allowed these practices, calling them traditional. In response, Americans United advocates truly inclusive invocation policies. The religious landscape in the U.S. is changing, with growing numbers of Americans saying they have no formal religion. It simply makes sense for local governments to respect and reflect the full diversity of their constituents.

Americans United is pleased that the Brevard County case has been resolved in a manner that respects diversity. Other localities should follow the teachings of this litigation, either by ensuring that their invocation policies are completely nondiscriminatory or by refraining from opening their meetings with prayers altogether.

Photo: A meeting of the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners

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