Brevard County (FL) Officials May Block Atheists from Giving an Invocation Since They’re Not a “Faith-Based” Group

Since Greece v Galloway, I’ve posted a number of examples of atheists delivering invocations at city council meetings. It’s a natural result of the Supreme Court’s decision: they ruled that sectarian prayers were allowed at government meetings, but that also meant no group, including atheists, could be excluded.

The Brevard County Commissioners in Florida (below) have a different interpretation of the law. They believe that invocations can rightfully be limited to “faith-based” groups — to hell with the atheists.

It all started back in May when David Williamson of the Central Florida Freethought Community sent a letter to the commissioners requesting that a member of his organization be allowed to deliver an invocation:

In the recent Supreme Court decision, Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Court emphasized that a government’s prayer practice must be “nondiscriminatory” and it must make reasonable efforts to include invocations from all members of the community, regardless of their faith. Note that Humanism is recognized as a religion under the First Amendment in numerous cases and excluding a particular faith group from consideration is unconstitutional.

In light of these facts, it is clear that local government meetings should include Humanist invocations as well as those from any other religious minorities. Therefore, we respectfully request the opportunity to offer invocations at your meetings.

We request that you notify us in writing at your earliest convenience about the next opportunity for us to offer the invocation at an upcoming meeting. If you require, we can identify persons in Brevard County to offer this invocation, however, we have several members of our organization who are endorsed by The Humanist Society, a religious organization, or who are otherwise ordained and accorded the same rights and privileges granted by law to traditional clergy.

It’s a simple request that’s been accepted several times over already. But there was no response. More than two months later, on July 22, Williamson sent a second letter, once again requesting permission to deliver an invocation.

Finally, Mary Bolin Lewis, the chair of the commission, responded… by telling them that she would be having none of it:

The Invocation portion of the agenda is an opening prayer presented by members of our faith community. The prayer is delivered during the ceremonial portion of the County’s meeting and typically invokes guidance for the County Commission from the highest spiritual authority, a higher authority which a substantial body of Brevard constituents believe to exist. The invocation is also meant to lend gravity to the occasion, to reflect values long part of the County’s heritage and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens in Brevard County.

In short: The atheists were being blocked from giving an invocation because they weren’t part of a “faith community” and the majority of citizens were religious. Because apparently that matters. So there.

Lewis added that atheists were welcome to speak during the “Public Comment” portion of the meeting, but that’s it. No invocation.

She’s completely wrong about this.

It’s not helping that Brevard County Attorney Scott Knox is siding with Lewis, saying that invocations can indeed be limited to just the “faith-based community.”

Meanwhile, Williamson’s doing everything he can to warn the Commission of its error before he files any lawsuit. In a Florida Today article, he laid out the problem with this “compromise”:

[Williamson] said Brevard County “should think twice before they send a letter of denial,” adding that an offer to speak during the public-comment time is not enough.

“I would equate that to separate, but equal,” Williamson said, alluding to the time of racial segregation in the United States.

This Tuesday, when the Commission holds its regular meeting, they plan to discuss how to respond to Williamson.

It shouldn’t be a long discussion. All they have to do is say “Yes” and they avoid further hassle, not to mention a potentially costly lawsuit.

For some reason, I don’t have enough confidence in them to do the right thing. And I’m sure they would love to hear your thoughts on the matter before they get together, so here are all of their email addresses:

Robin Fisher
Chuck Nelson
Trudie Infantini
Mary Bolin Lewis
Andy Anderson

You should (politely) let them know that atheists have as much of a right to speak as every faith-based group in Brevard County. To argue otherwise could cost the taxpayers a lot of money, money which would be better spent just about anywhere else.

(Thanks to Brian for the link)

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.


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