Lawsuit Filed Against Brevard County (FL) After Officials Block Atheists from Giving Invocations July 7, 2015

Lawsuit Filed Against Brevard County (FL) After Officials Block Atheists from Giving Invocations

I posted much of this yesterday, but because of new developments today, I’m putting this right back up with the update.

Nearly a year ago, we learned that the Brevard County Commissioners in Florida (below) had limited their invocations to “faith-based” groups — and the Central Florida Freethought Community could only speak during the “Public Comments” portion of the evening.

The Commissioners sent a rejection letter to CFFC and everything. At the time, the Anti-Defamation League sent a letter urging the Commissioners to reconsider:

The Commission’s decision to prohibit an atheist from delivering an invocation would most likely violate the standards set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Greece v. Galloway

Although this decision significantly broadens the types of opening prayers at meetings of local legislative bodies, invocation practices are not without limitation. Indeed, the Court required that a legislative body must implement a non-discrimination policy with respect to prayer givers. This means that the person who gives an invocation or prayer — whether a public official, member of the clergy, or an ordinary citizen — cannot be denied the prayer opportunity based on his or her faith, including a minority religion or atheism.

And the Commission’s response to that? A giant, collective “Up yours.”

This Board has no intention of violating the U.S. Supreme Court by following your flawed interpretation of the Court’s ruling in the Town of Greece case.

The Commission said in its letter that allowing the atheists to deliver an invocation would “show hostility toward the faith-based community,” because atheists, I guess, are all assholes. (I guess none of the Commissioners have bothered to look at the perfectly harmless invocations on the CFFC’s website.)

Yesterday, Brevard County Commissioner Curt Smith decided to throw atheists a bone… by saying the exact same problematic thing he’s been saying for a year now:

[Smith] says he wants to make it clear that representatives of atheist, agnostic and secular humanist groups are more than welcome to address commission meetings. Only not during the invocations at the start of the meeting.

That’s sweet of him. Do we get separate-but-equal bathrooms and water fountains, too?

This is ridiculous. The law has been very clear on this. If invocations are allowed at all, they must be open to any representative of any faith or no faith. You can’t exclude atheists on a whim.

But try telling that to Smith:

The invocation is for worshipping the God that created us,” Smith said Monday. Atheist and agnostic[s] “are not going to take the place of the godly invocation. Absolutely not.

A coalition of groups — including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the ACLU of Florida and the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief — sent Smith a letter back in May warning him of potential litigation if he kept this up… and he still doesn’t give a damn.

At tonight’s meeting, Smith is planning to present a formal resolution written by County Attorney Scott Knox that will set his rhetoric in stone:

Knox contends in his report that “supplanting traditional ceremonial pre-meeting prayer” with an invocation by atheists or agnostics “could be viewed as county hostility toward monotheistic religions whose theology and principles currently represent the minority view in Brevard County.” Furthermore, “such action may be deemed to violate the Constitution of the state of Florida.”

(Since when the hell are religious people in the minority?!)

Allowing atheists the opportunity to be in the invocation rotation wouldn’t hurt anybody. In essence, Knox is claiming that treating atheists/Agnostics the same way as religious people would be hostile to religious people.

Christians may not like that, but the government has no business picking favorites.

For all these reasons, a lawsuit has just been filed against Brevard County on behalf of several atheists in the area along with the Central Florida Freethought Community, Space Coast Freethought Association, and Humanist Community of the Space Coast. (They’re represented by AU, ACLU of Florida, FFRF, and the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.)

the groups assert that Brevard County’s persistent rejection of atheists, humanists and other nontheists who want to deliver solemnizing messages at the commencement of board meetings violates the U.S. and Florida Constitutions.

“Brevard County’s invocation policy blatantly discriminates against people who do not believe in God,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate legal director of Americans United and lead counsel in the case. “Such rank discrimination is plainly unconstitutional.”

Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said: “The government should never play favorites with belief. The county’s discriminatory policy is unfair and unconstitutional.”

ACLU of Florida Legal Director Nancy Abudu said: “If a government decides to have a forum that is open for public voices, then it must make it open to all voices — they don’t get to pick and choose. When the Board of County Commissioners blocks one group from having their voices heard, they are essentially saying to these citizens that their beliefs make them unwelcome in their own community. It’s unfair, discriminatory, and unconstitutional.”

Brevard County is going to lose this case because it’s obviously discriminatory. For the attorney Knox not to realize this makes you wonder how he got a law degree in the first place. Smith could have avoided it by doing the right thing a long time ago and allowing atheists to be included in the invocation mix, but he was too busy trying to be a Christian Martyr. Now, it’s the taxpayers who will have to pony up the money for legal bills (and potentially a lot more) because of the negligence of their elected leaders.

***Update***: Here’s a reminder of how the invocations have played out in Brevard County since October of 2010:

(Most of this article was published earlier)

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