Prayers in Florida City Meetings Pass Muster | Courthouse News Service
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Prayers in Florida City Meetings Pass Muster

(CN) - Florida atheists failed to show that the city of Lakeland advanced Christianity in kicking off City Commission with sectarian prayers, the 11th Circuit ruled.

Lakeland has been opening its commission meetings with an invocation since 1951, and those prayers were mostly made by Christian speakers.

In early March 2010, Atheists of Florida members attended a commission meeting and complained about the exclusively Christian Protestant prayer rituals, as well as the conspicuous absence of non-Protestant invocations.

For the last 30 years, the city had relied on a list of exclusively Christian speakers perform the invocation.

The atheists asked the commission to trade the invocation for a silent moment of reflection that would give all citizens a personal choice to pray or not as they prefer.

Video recordings of the Lakeland City Commission meetings held in 2009 and 2010 reflect that Christian speakers and clergy customarily offered their invocations "in the name of Jesus Christ." Other prayers referred to "our Savior" or "the King of Kings" or "the Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

In July 2010, the group and the director of its Lakeland chapter, Ellenbeth Wachs, sued the city and its mayor, Gow Fields, for violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment, as well as a provision of the Florida Constitution.

The following month, the commission adopted an official policy to select invocational speakers. Resolution 4848 required that the city extend all religious groups invitations to participate.

The atheists complained, however, that Lakeland failed to invite the new group of speakers within 30 days of the passage of the resolution, nor was the congregations list updated in November 2010. In fact, the updates were not completed until May 2011. Over that year, primarily Christian religious leaders opened the commission meetings with invocations. Three invocations were delivered by one Muslim and two Jewish speakers.

Lakeland nevertheless insisted that it is not in violation of the establishment clause and that prayer does not advance the Christian religion over all others.

A federal judge granted the defendants summary judgment, and a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit affirmed Tuesday.

"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," Judge Arthur Alarcon wrote for the court. "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."

The 39-page ruling also notes that the court lacks "jurisdiction to decide AOF's claim that the Lakeland City Commission's pre-March 2010 speaker selection practice violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment or Article I, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution."

"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," Alarcon added.

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