church and state hi res_newWritten by Don Byrd

Florida’s Brevard County Commission may be testing the limits of a recent Supreme Court decision, allowing sectarian invocations before government meetings in some circumstances. The Commission voted unanimously to exclude atheists from those allowed to give invocations.

The commissioners voted to send a letter to David Williamson, founder of the Central Florida Freethought Community, indicating that his group doesn’t qualify to deliver the invocation because it is defined as “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 letter reads. “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 the Supreme Court’s Town of Greece decision, the majority emphasized that the town’s policy in question was not itself discriminatory. “[L]eaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.” The almost exclusively Christian prayers, they said, are the result of demographics not discrimination. The town simply happens to be made up of almost exclusively Christian congregations.

Justice Alito wrote even more explicitly in his concurring opinion, “I would view this case very differently if the omission of . . . synagogues were intentional.”

Florida’s Brevard County Commission may now be testing the limits of this non-discrimination rule. Would Justice Alito view the case differently if the omission of atheists were intentional? We may yet find out.