After Nearly 30 Years of Christian Invocation Prayers, Court Rules that Lakeland City Council Wasn’t Promoting Christianity

In 2010, the Atheists of Florida organization sued the City of Lakeland and mayor Gow Field because they began each of their meetings with an invocation that seemed to always be Christian.

In its lawsuit, the group noted that prayers at the meetings include phrases such as “in the name of Jesus Christ,” “our Savior,” “the King of kings” and “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Hardly non-sectarian. In fact, in the 25-year span between September, 1985 and May, 2010, every single speaker (PDF) was a Christian.

Americans United filed an Amicus brief in support of AOF (PDF) and put the conclusion very bluntly:

The district court erred in upholding the Original Policy. When a city invites only Christian clergy for twenty-five straight years, and those Christian clergy deliver primarily Christian prayers — and no prayers from any other religion — that city demonstrates an official preference for Christianity.

AU added:

“For decades, this prayer policy excluded all faiths other than Christianity from meetings,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “That multiple Christian viewpoints were represented is irrelevant — exclusion is exclusion.”

In their initial lawsuit, AOF requested a moment of silence instead, but the city ignored them. For the rest of the year, they invited only Christians to deliver the invocation with the exception of one Jewish Cantor.

In July of 2010, the city finally took some action. They adopted “Resolution 4848″ which codified how they selected invocation speakers. In short, they moved the invocation to seconds before the “official” part of the meeting, and speakers could be invited from any of the congregations in the area.

But in 2011, the invocation speakers were all Christians on all but three occasions. (During those three meetings, the invocations were delivered by a Muslim and two Jews.)

AOF’s lawsuit claimed that the city was violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This was clear promotion of Christianity.

A federal judge dismissed their lawsuit… so they appealed the ruling. And this week, the 11th Circuit Appeals Court upheld the earlier ruling (PDF):

… This week, the court upheld the ruling of the lower court, stating that the prayers — according to the new policy — were not unconstitutional.

“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,” wrote Judge Arthur Alarcon on behalf of the panel. “Nor do those policies and practices have the effect of affiliating the Lakeland City Commission with any discrete faith or belief.”

Someone will have to explain to me how having Christian after Christian after Christian delivering an invocation that specifically mentions Christ doesn’t somehow constitute government endorsement of Christianity.

As for the 25 years of Christian prayers before the lawsuit, the court didn’t rule on that at all, because it all occurred before the adoption of Resolution 4848.

I’ve asked EllenBeth Wachs of AOF for comment and I’ll update this post when I hear back from her.

But this is a big blow to those who argue that city councils should not be endorsing one faith over another or faith over no faith. The Appeals Court’s ruling basically says that as long as the official rules you have in place aren’t directly promoting Christianity, you can promote it in practice without repercussion.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.