Atheist Group Loses Lawsuit Challenging Prayers at Florida City Commission Meetings

Lakeland, Florida — A Florida atheist group has lost their court challenge surrounding prayers that are offered during Lakeland’s City Commission meetings.

Atheists of Florida had filed a lawsuit against the City of Lakeland and its mayor, Gow Field, in 2010, contending that the prayers that preceded each meeting violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. The organization states that it sat in on a meeting in March 2010 and complained that the prayer was clearly Christian. It requested that the City have a moment of silence instead.

In its lawsuit, the group noted that prayers at the meetings include phrases such as “in the name of Jesus Christ,” “our Savior,” “the King of kings” and “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

A month after filing in district court, officials opened up the prayers to all religions in an effort to end the dispute. However, a year later, Atheists of Florida stated that it was not yet satisfied as the prayers were still predominantly Christian. One Muslim and two Jews had reportedly participated in a year’s time.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit against the City, and Atheists of Florida appealed to the 11th Circuit. This week, the court upheld the ruling of the lower court, stating that the prayers — according to the new policy — were not unconstitutional.

“The selection procedures of the invocational speakers invited to deliver an invocation at Lakeland City Commission’s meetings pursuant to policies and practices initiated informally in March 2010, which were codified with the passage of Resolution 4848 in August 2010, do not support the AOF’s contention that Lakeland attempted to exploit the prayer opportunity to proselytize or advance or disparage any one faith or belief,” wrote Judge Arthur Alarcon on behalf of the panel. “Nor do those policies and practices have the effect of affiliating the Lakeland City Commission with any discrete faith or belief.”

“Accordingly, we are persuaded that the district court did not err in granting Lakeland’s motion for summary judgment with regard to Lakeland’s policies and practices for the selection of speakers since March 2010 and codified in Resolution 4848,” he concluded.

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The judges advised, however, that they lacked jurisdiction to decide Atheists of Florida’s contention that the prayers were unlawful prior to the new policy.

“For the same reasons, the district court lacked jurisdiction, and we vacate that portion of the district court’s judgment addressing the merits of AOF’s challenge to the pre-March 2010 prayer practice and remand for the district court to dismiss that portion of the challenge as moot,” Alcaron wrote.

“We were elated to hear the news earlier today on the court’s ruling,” stated Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields following the decision. “I believe very strongly that this was a very important message to make: That the Constitution applies to those that want to exercise their right to offer an invocation for heavenly guidance for their elected officials.”

The Lakeland City Commission has been opening its meetings with prayer since 1951.

Photo: Mike Russell

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