This was the ruling from an appeals court that was handed down on Monday. Brevard County in Florida had passed a resolution justifying its policies that said that “an ‘invocation’ by atheists, agnostics or other persons represented by or associated with FFRF and [AU] could be viewed as County hostility toward monotheistic religions”” and thus could be barred.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Brevard County violated the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause” by allowing clerics from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other monotheistic religions and denominations deliver invocations at county commissioner meetings, while excluding atheists, secular humanists and others deemed outside the “mainstream.”
You can read the full opinion here. Here are some excerpts:
In this case, Brevard County has selected invocation speakers in a way that favors certain monotheistic religions and categorically excludes from consideration other religions solely based on their belief systems. Brevard County’s process of selecting invocation speakers thus runs afoul of the Establishment Clause. As it stands, members of the Brevard County Board of Commissioners have plenary authority, on a rotating basis, to invite whomever they want to deliver invocations, with no consistent standards or expectation of inclusiveness. From their testimony, it is abundantly clear that most if not all of the Commissioners exercise their discretion in a way that discriminates among religions based on their beliefs, favoring some but not all monotheistic and familiar religious sects over those faiths that fall outside the “mainstream.” Moreover, some religions are scrutinized by the Commissioners more closely, and others are even categorically excluded from consideration. Secular humanists are far from the only group viewed with disfavor. Thus, for example, some of the Commissioners and former Commissioners have testified unambiguously that they would not allow deists, Wiccans, Rastafarians, or, for that matter, polytheists to deliver prayers, and that they would have to think long and hard before inviting a Hindu, a Sikh, or a follower of a Native American religion. Nothing could be clearer from this record than that more than a few of the Commissioners rejected speakers based squarely on the nature of the religious beliefs they held.
The discriminatory procedure for selecting invocation speakers followed in Brevard County is unconstitutional and it must be rejected. As a result, we have no occasion to reach further constitutional questions, including whether atheists and secular humanists must be allowed to deliver non-theistic invocations. Brevard County’s current legislative prayer practices violate the command of the First Amendment. We need go no further today than to say this: in selecting invocation speakers, the Commissioners may not categorically exclude from consideration speakers from a religion simply because they do not like the nature of its beliefs.
These depositions confirm that the selection process entails a grant of plenary authority to each Commissioner on a rotating basis, and that nearly all of the Commissioners exercised that authority in a way that categorically excludes some religions and places additional burdens on others based on the content of their religious beliefs. They favor familiar monotheistic religions over other monotheistic religions that seem unfamiliar. (Thus, by example, one Commissioner’s response when asked whether he would invite a Rastafarian was: “Don’t have any idea what that is. But I would say no.”)
The lower District Court had ruled that the policy violated the Establishment, Free Exercise, and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment, as well as violating the Equal Protection clause, a veritable Grand Slam of constitutional violations. Congratulations on your achievement, Brevard! Let’s give them a warm round of humanistic applause!
While the Appeals Court upheld the lower District Court’s findings of unconstitutionality, it said that it went too far in directing Brevard County to give the eight plaintiffs opportunities to offer invocations. It instead asked the judge to rewrite his injunctive relief to be consistent with their ruling.
Invocations are an utter waste of time. But not only do many government officials want to have invocations, they go to great lengths to try and figure out which religious group is worthy of giving one. Take for example Hinduism, one of the supposedly problematic religions according to the theologians of Brevard County, presumably because it is not monotheistic. But Hinduism is complex. There are many deities that are worshipped but are they different gods or different manifestations of a single god? It seems like it depends on whom you ask. And what about the Christian Trinity of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit (or Melvin, Jesus, and Harvey as I like to call them)? And what about Catholics who worship Mary and other saints?
I wonder how long it will take before officials realize that including invocations is not worth the trouble.