Florida humanist gives first secular invocation at Brevard County meeting after yearslong legal battle

David Williamson of the Central Florida Freethought Community delivers a secular invocation at the public meeting of the Brevard County Board of Commissioners on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. | Facebook/Central Florida Freethought Community

A Florida county that previously prohibited secular invocations at public meetings had its first non-religious invocation Tuesday following a yearslong court battle.

The Brevard County Board of Commissioners meeting held Tuesday morning opened with a secular invocation given by local humanist David Williamson.

“As we begin the day in service together, we remember the solemn responsibility we have to our shared community,” said Williamson in his invocation.

“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 toward one another and to all those you serve as representatives in local government.”

Williamson closed his statement by calling on all to “incline our ears toward reason, apply our heart to understanding, and seek knowledge we can use to find common ground among the citizens for the betterment of the county.”

In 2014, David Williamson of the Central Florida Freethought Community asked the Brevard County Commissioners to do a secular invocation at the start of an official meeting.

In response to the request, Brevard commissioners unanimously approved a measure prohibiting atheist invocations, but they agreed to allow them during the public comments portion of public meetings.

"The prayer is delivered during the ceremonial portion of the county's meeting, and typically invokes guidance for the County Commission from the highest spiritual authority, a higher authority which a substantial body of Brevard constituents believe to exist," wrote Brevard County Chair Mary Bolin Lewis to Williamson in 2014.

"The invocation is also meant to lend gravity to the occasion, to reflect values long part of the county's heritage, and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens in Brevard County."

Williamson and others sued the county over the ban in 2015, being represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In September 2017, a district court ruled against the county and in July 2019, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit unanimously upheld the decision.

Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus wrote the panel's opinion, arguing that while the county was allowed to have sectarian invocations at public meetings, they cannot exclude certain groups.

“Brevard County has selected invocation speakers in a way that favors certain monotheistic religions and categorically excludes from consideration other religions solely based on their belief systems. Brevard County’s process of selecting invocation speakers thus runs afoul of the Establishment Clause,” wrote Judge Marcus.

“Secular humanists are far from the only group viewed with disfavor … some of the Commissioners and former Commissioners have testified unambiguously that they would not allow deists, Wiccans, Rastafarians, or, for that matter, polytheists to deliver prayers, and that they would have to think long and hard before inviting a Hindu, a Sikh, or a follower of a Native American religion.”

In February 2020, the county agreed to a settlement allowing secular invocations and paying $430,000 in court costs and legal fees, as well as $60,000 in damages to the plaintiffs.

Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United who helped represent the plaintiffs, expressed support for the settlement in a statement released at the time.

“This settlement protects the religious freedom of everyone in Brevard County. No one should be excluded from participating in local government because of their beliefs about religion,” said Luchenitser.

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