Orlando/Melbourne, FL – A federal court late last night struck down the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners’ exclusionary practice of discrimination against the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), whose members have offered to give opening invocations at commission meetings.
In its ruling, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida said a local governing body cannot limit its invocation speakers to members of theistic communities.
“County commissioners are the elected officials who are closest to the people of Brevard. They failed to adequately represent Brevard’s pluralistic community by voting three times, unanimously, to codify religious discrimination against atheists. Now, we learned that the Court agrees.” said David Williamson, a plaintiff in the case.
The lawsuit was filed in 2015 by the CFFC, the Humanist Community of the Space Coast, the Space Coast Freethought Society, and some of their members. The groups asserted in the case that the Commission’s rejection of atheists, humanists, and other non-theists who sought to deliver solemnizing messages at the beginning of commission meetings violated the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.
Since a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Town of Greece v. Galloway, the CFFC has offered more than fifty invocations at city, town, and county government meetings across the region. Brevard County was the only government body that rejected CFFC’s requests for inclusion in the process.
“ ‘[T]he great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation,’ ” the court wrote (quoting another case). “Regrettably, religion has become such an instrument in Brevard County. The County defines rights and opportunities of its citizens to participate in the ceremonial pre-meeting invocation during the County Board’s regular meetings based on the citizens’ religious beliefs.... [T]he County’s policy and practice violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article I, Sections 2 and 3 of the Florida Constitution.”
Of the decision, Keith Becher, a plaintiff in the case, said, "I am delighted the ruling favors equality. Atheists, non-believers, secular humanists and those from minority religions are an integral part of this community. We strive to be active participants and relish the opportunity to invoke the higher ideals that everyone in our community shares."
“We’re delighted such blatant discrimination against nonreligious citizens has been struck down,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, CFFC’s parent organization. “Governmental bodies that open their meetings with invocations must not turn believers into insiders, and nonbelievers into outsiders, by excluding dissenting points of view.”
“It is unconstitutional for any governing body to discriminate against people who don’t believe in God,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and lead counsel in the case. “Yet that is exactly what Brevard County did through its invocation policy. We’re pleased that the Court put an end to the County’s discriminatory practice.”
The lawsuit has been litigated by Luchenitser and Bradley Girard of Americans United; Rebecca S. Markert and Andrew L. Seidel of FFRF; Nancy Abudu and Daniel Tilley of the ACLU of Florida; and Daniel Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.