Judge Rules Against Fla. County's Prayer Policy That Bars Atheist Invocations

Members of the Brevard County Board of Commissioners pray as Pastor Tom Porter delivers the invocation at their budget hearing meeting, Sept. 26, 2017.
Members of the Brevard County Board of Commissioners pray as Pastor Tom Porter delivers the invocation at their budget hearing meeting, Sept. 26, 2017. | (Screenshot: Facebook/BrevardCountyGovernment)

A federal judge has ruled against a Florida county government's prayer policy that bans atheist invocations from its public meetings.

In a decision released Saturday in Williamson v. Brevard County, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida concluded that the Brevard County Board of Commissioners was unlawfully limiting who could give invocations at their meetings.

"For a governmental entity to require, or attempt to require, 'religious' content in invocations is, in effect (or, at best, but a step removed from) that entity composing prayers for public consumption or censoring the content of prayer,"

"Here, the County is attempting to require that God be mentioned in invocations by limiting the sphere of invocation givers to those who believe- or who the County thinks believe- in one God. This practice cannot be squared with controlling precedent, and the County's invocation practice cannot be defended based on a 'religiosity' requirement."

In 2014, David Williamson of the Central Florida Freethought Community and other local atheist leaders requested to perform an atheist invocation at the opening of the Brevard County Commissioners meeting.

In response, Brevard Commissioners unanimously approved a measure that August banning atheist invocations from opening their public meetings.

Brevard County Chair Mary Bolin Lewis sent a letter to Williamson, explaining that he was free to offer such an invocation during the public comments section of the meeting.

"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 Lewis in a draft version of the board approved-letter.

"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."

The board cited the 2014 United States Supreme Court decision Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the high court ruled 5-4 that sectarian prayers could be offered at government meetings.

At its most recent budget hearing meeting on Sept. 26, Pastor Tom Porter from Temple Baptist Church in Titusville delivered the invocation. He prayed that God would guide the Brevard County Commission and ended the prayer in Jesus' name.

The lawsuit against the county was filed in 2015 by Williamson and other plaintiffs. They were represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, and American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Daniel Mach, director of ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said in a statement released Sunday that he was pleased with the decision.

"The County's outright exclusion of nonreligious speakers was unfair and unconstitutional," stated Mach, adding that the ruling "sends a powerful reminder that no one should be treated as a second-class citizen by their local government."

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