(CN) – A Florida county’s practice of banning non-theists from giving the invocation before public meetings is unconstitutional, a federal judge ruled Saturday.
U.S. District Judge John Antoon II ordered Brevard County officials to discontinue the practice of not opening the pre-meeting prayer to non-believers.
“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,” Antoon wrote his 69-page ruling. “The county’s policy and practice violate the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article 1, Sections 2 and 3 of the Florida Constitution.”
The case stems from requests by five county residents, who describe themselves as atheists or secular humanists, to give an invocation before a county commission meeting. After first ignoring the requests, the county commission debated the issue at a meeting and drafted a resolution that specifically disallows invocations given by those who do not believe in some sort of deity.
In 2015, those residents joined the Central Florida Freethought Community, Space Coast Freethought Association and the Humanist Community of the Space Coast in a lawsuit against the county, alleging violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Judge Antoon’s order centers on legal arguments made in a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case allowing the town of Greece, N.Y. to permit volunteer chaplains to open meetings with a prayer, as long as officials do not discriminate among faiths or the non-faithful.
“What happens in Brevard County is a far cry from what happens in the town of Greece,” wrote Judge Antoon. “Brevard County does not allow everyone to give an invocation. Instead, it limits the prayer opportunity to those it ‘deems capable’ of doing so – based on the beliefs of the would-be prayer giver.”
“And after plaintiffs requested to give an invocation at a board meeting, the county responded not with an attitude of inclusion, but with an express statement and policy of exclusion,” he continued.
Court documents show that between 2010 and 2016, all but seven invocations at county board meetings were given by Christians of various denominations. The others were prayers given by those of the Jewish faith. In depositions, some commissioners expressed an unwillingness to allow Muslims or Hindus to give the pre-meeting prayer.
“Moreover, as earlier noted, on those occasions when a speaker is not scheduled in Brevard County or does not show up, either a moment of silence is observed or an audience member is solicited to given an invocation,” Antoon wrote. “Obviously, a moment of silence does not invoke ‘a higher power’ or anything else. And when audience members fill in for an absent speaker, they apparently do not have their beliefs vetted before being permitted to speak. These facts only further emphasize the differential treatment to which plaintiffs have been subjected in Brevard County.”
Judge Antoon also noted some of the plaintiffs have been invited by other counties to give invocations.
The judge did not agree with the plaintiffs’ contention that use of city phones and e-mail to contact potential speakers violates the “no-aid” clause, which restricts government money when assisting religious organizations. He also ruled that asking people to stand for the invocation was not coercing them into participating with a particular religion.
Judge Antoon did not enter a formal judgment, but instead instructed the parties to submit a settlement agreement in regards to damages.
The plaintiffs were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
“The County’s outright exclusion of nonreligious speakers was unfair and unconstitutional,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, in a statement. “This decision sends a powerful reminder that no one should be treated as a second-class citizen by their local government.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the parent organization of the Central Florida Freethought Community, also praised the court’s decision.
“We’re delighted such blatant discrimination against non-religious citizens has been struck down,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the organization’s co-president, in a statement. “Governmental bodies that open their meetings with invocations must not turn believers into insiders, and nonbelievers into outsiders, by excluding dissenting points of view.”
Brevard County Attorney Scott Knox could not immediately be reached for comment.