Government officials in Brevard County, Fla., violated the Constitution by consistently relying on clergy from mainstream monotheistic religions to offer invocations before official meetings, a federal appeals court ruled July 8.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the Brevard County Commissioners' invocation policy must change. The case, Williamson v. Brevard County, was brought by Americans United, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida and the Freedom From Religion Foundation on behalf of several non-theists whom commissioners have barred from offering invocations.
"Nothing could be clearer from this record than that more than a few of the Commissioners rejected speakers based squarely on the nature of the religious beliefs they held," declared Judge Stanley Marcus.
Marcus added, "The discriminatory procedure for selecting invocation speakers followed in Brevard County is unconstitutional and it must be rejected. We need go no further today than to say this: in selecting invocation speakers, the Commissioners may not categorically exclude from consideration speakers from a religion simply because they do not like the nature of its beliefs."
The court did not decide whether the commissioners must allow non-theistic groups to deliver invocations, however. The case now returns to a lower court for further proceedings.
AU and its allies filed the legal challenge July 7, 2015, after repeated efforts to convince the commissioners to change their invocation policy were unsuccessful. Among the plaintiffs are the Central Florida Free-thought 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.
The groups noted that the commission's prayers tended to be Christian with an occasional Jewish speaker. An analysis of the 180 official commission meetings during the period of January 2010 to May 2015 found that 168 began with an invocation of some sort, usually by a Protestant minister. Four invocations were offered by rabbis, and in 12 instances, meetings began with a moment of silence.
In its ruling, the court relied heavily on statements some members of the commission gave during legal depositions. Some of the commissioners flatly said they would bar polytheists or Wiccans from delivering invocations. One member said that if a...