A holy war is breaking out between an atheist group in Florida and local politicians who reportedly contend that nonbelievers do not qualify under the umbrella of eligible individuals invited to deliver prayers before government meetings.
Following the Supreme Court’s recent Greece vs. Galloway decision that validates invocations at public meetings so long as citizens of all perspectives are invited to pray, David Williamson, leader of the Central Florida Freethought Community, wrote a letter to the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners asking if a member of his organization could “pray” at a future meeting.
“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,” his note read in part. “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.”
But Mary Bolin Lewis, chair of the commission, reportedly said in a draft letter yet to be sent to Williamson that the atheist group, which is a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and an affiliate of the American Humanist Association, doesn’t qualify and can, instead, speak for three minutes during the public comment portion at the end of these meetings.
Lewis added that invocations are for members of the “faith community,” according to Florida Today.
“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,” she wrote in a version of the letter posted here. “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.”
Lewis added, “The Commission respectfully takes issue with the claim that members of your organization are being excluded from presenting their viewpoint at County Commission meetings.”
County attorney Scott Knox seemingly backs this interpretation as well, noting that the commission can limit these prayers to the “faith-based community” so long as atheists have a chance to speak at a different time during meetings.
The commission is scheduled to decide at its meeting Tuesday whether to send Lewis’ draft letter to the atheist group.
Regardless, Williamson is pushing back, accusing the commission of discrimination and describing the Central Florida Freethought Community as a “minority religion.”
He also told Florida Today that he would equate relegating a member of his group to speak during the public comment period instead of the time allowed for prayer to “separate but equal,” a reference to past segregation policies in America.
It’s unclear what will happen next, though the issue opens up a fascinating debate surrounding Greece vs. Galloway, a decision widely viewed as backing sectarian prayers at government meetings so long as every religious group is afforded the right to offer an invocation.
The debate here surrounds whether or not an atheist or humanist group qualifies as a “religious” organization. So far, it seems many atheist groups have been supportive of this label, with the Humanist Society, a supplemental arm of the American Humanist Association, launching a website in May that offered atheists information on how to provide secular invocations. TheBlaze has covered examples of these prayers in the past.
While many towns and counties around the nation have allowed these secular invocations, Lewis’ claim that they do not qualify as prayers holds the potential to spark major debate and, if her letter is delivered, the battle could surely intensify.
(H/T: Hemant Mehta)
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