BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. — An atheist organization has filed a federal lawsuit against a Florida county over its policy banning non-religious persons from delivering the invocation at the start of commission meetings.
“To deny anyone the right to offer an invocation at this meeting and segregate them into a public comment period, which is what they’ve chosen to do, can be seen by any reasonable observer as an endorsement of religion,” Central Florida Freethought Community spokesman David Williamson told local radio station WMFE.
As previously reported, the Brevard County Commissioners voted unanimously last August to deny Williamson’s invocation request after he sent correspondence to Chairman Mary Bolin Lewis asking that the group be added to the county’s list. The county stated that Williamson’s group does not qualify for the invocation because it is defined as a “prayer presented by members of [the] faith community.”
“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,” the response from the commissioners and the county attorney outlined. “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.”
Instead of seeking to utilize the prayer portion of the meeting, the county suggested that Williamson’s group speak during the public comment period.
Last week, Brevard County Commissioners discussed a clarification policy proposed by board member Curt Smith, which reiterated that while the invocations would remain religious in nature, atheists would be welcome to speak during the comment period.
“The board wishes to formalize a policy on invocations that is not hostile to faith based religions, and that does not endorse secular humanism, or non-belief of traditional faith based religions, comprised of constituents who believe in God,” Smith said.
The board voted unanimously in favor of the policy, which angered atheists who opined that the rule was discriminatory.
“The groups are adamant that this is discrimination, and it relegates non-believers to second class citizens,” Williamson told reporters. “To deny anyone the right to participate as equal members of the community that portion of the meeting is abhorrent.”
The Florida Freethought Community and the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have now filed a federal lawsuit against the county over the matter.
Smith says that he doesn’t believe that a non-religious group can rightfully accuse the county of engaging in discrimination.
“If they were a religion and they honored the word of God, they would have every opportunity to speak to us during that period that we set aside to honor God,” he stated. “The business of the community is secular, and these folks are admitted secularists, so they can take part in the secular business anytime they wish.”