Commissioners Vote to Appeal Ruling Blocking Requirement of ‘Theistic Content’ for Invocations

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. — The Brevard County Board of Commissioners has unanimously voted to appeal a ruling by a federal judge that blocks commissioners from requiring that the prayers presented at the beginning of public board meetings contain “theistic content.”

According to Florida Today, Commission Chair Rita Pritchett remarked that the ruling “takes away the freedom of speech of the Christian community.”

“I think there is a big attack on Christianity. I believe that’s where we are as a society,” she said.

U.S. District Judge John Antoon II, appointed to the bench by then-President Bill Clinton, issued his final opinion and injunction on Nov. 29, declaring that the “county may not require theistic content in opening invocations.” He also ordered the commission to pay $60,000 in compensatory damages to the atheist entities that sued for not being permitted to deliver an invocation.

The board consequently temporarily dispensed of the opening prayer while also voting to appeal the ruling, in hopes that it will be overturned by the federal appeals court.

“You’ve authorized an appeal. Pending that appeal, we feel it’s appropriate that we do the moment of silence, in lieu of an invocation, instead of trying to come up with a new policy on that. Just wait till the appellate court rules on the existing policy,” attorney Scott Knox advised.

As previously reported, the matter began in 2014 when commissioners voted unanimously to deny a request from atheist David Williamson of the Central Florida Freethought Community after he asked that his group be added to the county’s invocation list.

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The County replied that Williamson’s group did 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.”

The County, still seeking to accommodate Williamson somehow, instead suggested that the Freethought group speak during the public comment period. The board voted unanimously in favor of formalizing the matter into a 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.”

He therefore sued the board, and in September, Antoon issued an injunction in Williamson’s favor.

“By opening up its invocation practice to volunteer citizens but requiring that those citizens believe in a ‘higher power’ before they will be permitted to solemnize a board meeting, the County is violating the freedom of religious belief and conscience guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause,” he contended.

Antoon opined that allowing only those who believe in God to deliver the prayer is an “instrument of division.”

“The County defines rights and opportunities of its citizens to participate in the ceremonial pre-meeting invocation during the county board’s regular meetings based on the citizens’ religious beliefs,” he wrote. “[T]he county’s policy and practice violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and … the Florida Constitution.”

Antoon released his final ruling on Nov. 29, asserting that it is discriminatory not to allow atheists, agnostics and humanists to deliver the invocation, and said it was “narrow” to think that prayer is only for those who believe in God.

“[T]he County’s assertion that a pre-meeting solemnizing invocation necessarily requires that a ‘higher power’ be invoked is an overly narrow view of an invocation,” he asserted. “The County limits the prayer opportunity to those it deems capable of doing so—based on the beliefs of the would-be prayer-giver. In doing so, the County discriminates among invocation speakers on the basis of viewpoint.”

Commissioners voted unanimously to appeal, while also replacing the prayer with a moment of silence—for now.

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