Brevard County Commission Taking Liberties With Liberty
Back in May of this year the US Supreme Court ruled on a gnarly little problem that causes no end of mischief in America: the separation of church and state.
This was not the first time SCOTUS addressed the issue and it’s very unlikely that it will be the last. Nevertheless, this time around the court settled the question [at least for now] of whether or not the Constitution allows for prayer during government meetings. Long story short—the court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, to give brief, ceremonial prayers in civic meetings their juridical blessing.
Hosannas were heard throughout the land because American Christians construed the high court ruling as a victory and, apparently, felt much less persecuted because of it. All things being theoretically equal, a few other spiritual brands felt empowered by the decision as well. One such was the Central Florida Freethought Community which resides in Florida’s Brevard County.
It just so happens that the Brevard County commissioners have a long proud history of indulging in the quaint but questionable practice of invoking supernatural guidance before their meetings. To keep things democratic, commissioners take turns inviting local spiritual leaders to make up those invocations.
So, with SCOTUS leveling the playing field, it was only natural that David Williamson, founder of the Central Florida Freethought Community was emboldened to request that his organization, too, be added to the commission’s rota of pre-meeting invokers. After all, a number of other Florida municipalities had already welcomed Williamson’s offer of secular invocations.
Williamson sent his first request to Brevard County in May, 2014. The commissioners chose to ignore him in hopes, I suppose, that he might go away. But Williamson was persistent and knowledgable of his rights, as laid out in his second request:
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.
So, spurred to act, in an impressive fit of creative problem-solving, the County Commissioners of Brevard County Florida just voted unanimously, yesterday, to ensure that the County Commission will continue to be guided by their preferred “highest spiritual authority” by suspending those bits of the US Constitution that they find inconsistent with their values.
That means no pre-meeting invocations by Humanists, Pastafarians, Atheists, or Freethinkers, thank you very much, because those kinds of people “do not share the values and beliefs” of the commissioners’ kind of people—a conclusion arrived at by County Commission Chair, Mary Bolin Lewis, after her exhaustive perusal of the Central Florida Freethought Community’s website.
Just prior to their vote, the commission heard persuasive arguments in favor of including CFFC in future invocations, made by David Kearns, who is running for the Florida Statehouse; Joseph Richardson; and “Dave Goshorn who quoted Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, John F. Kennedy, and even the Bible to make the point of how important church/state separation is and why prayer shouldn’t be a public display.” But, in the end, the commission voted unanimously to officially deny Williamson’s request.
And, just to give some indication of how utterly batty these commissioners are [aided and abetted by their lawyer, Scott Knox], in the draft version of their denial, they support their discriminatory position with a thoroughly misconstrued quote from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Galloway v. Town of Greece:
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 citizens in Brevard County.
Your website leads us to understand your organization and its members do not share those beliefs or values which, of course, is your choice under the laws of the United States. However, this Commission chooses to stand by the tradition of opening its meetings in a manner acknowledging the beliefs of a large segment of its constituents. Your claims to the contrary notwithstanding, over the years this Commission has heard invocations from a variety of religious faiths in our community, including Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon and Adventist. “Even those who disagree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect for the divine in all aspects of their lives and being.” (Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the Court in Galloway v. Town of Greece)
The commission did offer Williamson a consolation prize of a three minute time slot in the Public Comment portion at the end of each meeting, in which any citizen can vent any sane or otherwise notion that s/he harbors with no implied endorsement by the commissioners.
Williamson declined to take the commission up on that calling it “separate but equal” ergo unfair, discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Magic 8 Ball says the commission has a lawsuit in their future despite the fact that Williamson has pretty much spoon-fed them every conceivable legal reason to relent and save the taxpayers’ money but something tells me that this commission will figure that a “large segment of their constituents” will be more than happy to pony up and line Scott Knox’s pockets to defend their right to discriminate against the Freethinkers.
It’s an old, old American Tale that, unfortunately for the good taxpayers of Brevard County, almost always ends in tears.