Religious Freedom Groups Call on Federal Court to Defend Rights of Atheists

April 30, 2018 12:15 pm

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ATLANTA — The American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation urged a federal appeals court today to uphold a ruling that struck down a Florida county’s exclusion of nontheists from giving opening invocations at meetings of the Board of County Commissioners.

The groups filed the brief at with Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in the case Williamson v. Brevard County.

Brevard County’s policy that permits only people who believe in a monotheistic God — and not atheists, Humanists, and other nontheists — to open meetings with invocations. At board meetings, plaintiffs said they felt pressured and coerced to participate in prayer and excluded from the meetings.

“The district court correctly held that Brevard County’s discriminatory policy for selecting invocation-speakers violates the U.S. and Florida Constitutions,” argues the brief. “This court should affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment to plaintiffs on the issue of discrimination in the selection of invocation-speakers.”

In its recent decision, the district court stated, quoting another case, “‘[T]he great promise of the Establishment Clause is that religion will not operate as an instrument of division in our nation.’” The opinion continues, “Regrettably, religion has become such an instrument in Brevard County.”

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said, “The county has imposed a religious litmus test on civic participation, shirking its constitutional duty to treat all local residents fairly and equally.”

Freedom from Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor, said, “Courts have historically recognized that the government may not turn believers into insiders, and nonbelievers into outsiders. Governmental bodies opening their meetings with invocations can’t exclude dissenting points of view.”

Americans United for Separation of Church and State said in a statement, “No one should be excluded from civic affairs because they do not believe in God. Prohibiting nonbelievers from solemnizing governmental meetings is religious discrimination, plain and simple.”

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