Federal Court Rules Florida County Public Meeting Policy Discriminates Based on Religion
MIAMI – The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled today that the Brevard County, Fla., Commissioners’ policy of using religious beliefs to determine who can offer invocations at public meetings is unconstitutional and discriminatory.
The case, Williamson v. Brevard County, was brought by the ACLU, the ACLU of Florida, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The 2015 filing challenged the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners’ policy of excluding nontheists from delivering invocations at board meetings — an opportunity offered only to those who hold certain monotheistic beliefs.
Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said: “There should never be a religious litmus test for participation in local government meetings. The Brevard County Commissioners have been playing favorites with faith, and we’re pleased that, once again, the courts have told them that enough is enough.”
“The discriminatory procedure for selecting invocation speakers followed in Brevard County is unconstitutional and it must be rejected,” wrote Judge Stanley Marcus in the opinion. “The Commissioners have favored some religions over others, and barred those they did not approve of from being considered. This plainly violates the principle of denominational neutrality found at the heart of the Establishment Clause.”
Alex J. Luchenitser, Americans United Associate legal director who is lead counsel in the case, said, “Brevard County Commissioners were using religion as the basis for discrimination by allowing only people of preferred faiths to offer invocations. Religious minorities and nonbelievers are equal members of society and they must be treated equally by their elected officials. The court’s decision today made clear that no one should be excluded from civic affairs because of their beliefs about God.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor, Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president, added, “We’re delighted the appeals court has asserted that such blatant discrimination against nontheists cannot stand. Governmental bodies that open their meetings with invocations must not turn believers into insiders, and nonbelievers into outsiders, by excluding dissenting points of view.”
The plaintiffs in the case include the Central Florida Freethought Community and its director, 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.
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