(CN) – The procedure Brevard County, Florida, uses to choose who gives invocations during commission meetings is discriminatory and unconstitutional, the 11th Circuit ruled Monday.
A unanimous three-judge panel found Brevard County commissioners discriminated on the basis of religion by failing to grant some residents’ permission to speak at the beginning of board meetings.
Government-run meetings can open with a public prayer or speech, the panel ruled, but officials cannot use religion or belief systems as the method of choosing which members of the public can perform pre-meeting invocations.
Affirming a federal judge’s 2018 ruling in a lawsuit filed by several civil rights organizations, the panel found the procedures Brevard County commissioners use to decide who gives invocations systematically leaves out nonreligious and polytheistic residents.
“The issue lies in how the commissioners exercised their discretion in practice. Brevard County’s haphazard selection process categorically excludes certain faiths – some monotheistic and apparently all polytheistic ones – based on their belief systems,” U.S. Circuit Judge Stanley Marcus, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, wrote in a 45-page opinion. “Most commissioners do not appear to have employed belief-neutral criteria in selecting which invocation-givers to invite.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Florida, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation brought the case against Brevard County in 2015.
“We are pleased with this ruling, because it protects citizens’ equal rights in civil proceedings regardless of what religious beliefs they hold,” Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in an interview.
Luchenitser said Americans United clients applied for permission to deliver opening invocations to kick off certain county commission meetings, but were denied, because their religious beliefs differ from those held by some county officials.
“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,” Marcus wrote, condemning the procedure.
Luchenitser noted Monday’s ruling may also impact county governments in Georgia and Alabama.
“No government should ever discriminate among its citizens based on their religious beliefs,” Luchenitser said.
Brevard County could not immediately be reached for comment.
U.S. Circuit Judges Britt Grant, a President Donald Trump appointee, and Frank Hull, also a Clinton appointee, joined Marcus’ opinion.