Federal Court: Let Atheists Lead Gov’t Prayers

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by David Nussman  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  July 10, 2019   

Court of Appeals says Florida county must allow people of any belief to lead prayer before legislative sessions

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MIAMI (ChurchMilitant.com) - A federal court ruled Monday that people of all faiths, as well as atheists, must be allowed to give an opening blessing at government meetings.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that Brevard County in Florida violated the First Amendment by essentially barring atheists, Wiccans and others from delivering opening invocations for the Brevard County Board of Commissioners.

The county's board of commissioners, like many legislative bodies in the United States, often has a religious invocation that precedes its public proceedings.

Representing a three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus wrote in the ruling, "In this case, 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."

Reuters reports that the court heard the case in Miami, Florida.

Among the plaintiffs in the case are the Humanist Community of the Space Coast, the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC) and the Space Coast Free Thought Association.

The CFFC consists largely of atheists and agnostics. It fights for "secular local government which neither promotes nor denigrates any religion."

A press release from CFFC on Monday's court ruling noted, "Since a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Town of Greece v. Galloway, the CFFC has offered nearly 80 non-theistic invocations at city, town, and county government meetings across Central Florida. Brevard County was the only government body that rejected CFFC's requests for inclusion in the process."

David Williamson, another plaintiff, celebrated the federal court's decision, saying, "We are pleased a second court has agreed that religious discrimination by the Brevard County Commission is unconstitutional and must stop. Our hope is that a third court is not needed to reaffirm our rights."

Arguing the plaintiffs' case were attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the ACLU of Florida, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The court's Monday ruling stated that several current and former county commissioners "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."

The ruling stated elsewhere, "Brevard County's haphazard selection process categorically excludes certain faiths — some monotheistic and apparently all polytheistic ones — based on their belief systems."

In explaining the decision, Marcus pointed to legal precedents, including U.S. Supreme Court rulings, related to the interpretation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The way this has been interpreted in the courts, Marcus wrote in the decision, is that the government must not prefer one religious sect or creed over others. Monday's decision affirmed that the Establishment Clause cannot be interpreted as prohibiting religious displays from government functions, saying that "the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Establishment Clause has expressly permitted the longstanding practice of opening a legislative session with a prayer."

The district court upheld a lower court's 2017 decision siding with the plaintiffs, but also overturned some aspects of the ruling.

In the 2017 decision, U.S. District Judge John Antoon ordered Brevard County to offer each of the eight plaintiffs an opportunity to give an invocation. But in the opinion of the panel of federal judges, "The trial court's injunction goes too far and says too much."

"Again, all that we hold today is that the Board's current invocation speaker selection procedures are unlawful," Monday's decision went on to state. "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."

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