A Florida county is facing a $490,000 bill from atheist groups and their attorneys after two federal courts found the county’s prohibition on “secular invocations” was unconstitutional.
Brevard County previously had a policy excluding atheists and humanists from offering invocations at board meetings, but the Central Florida Freethought Community and other like-minded groups successfully sued. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals last year ruled the county’s policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on government establishment of religion, Christian Headlines previously reported.
Now the county is facing damages and legal fees totaling $490,000, according to Florida Today. The settlement total includes $60,000 in compensatory damages for the groups and individuals who sued, and $430,000 in attorney fees.
The Brevard County Commission is scheduled to vote Tuesday night on paying the bill. Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation represented the groups. The Central Florida Freethought Community is an organization of humanists and atheists.
Under the old policy, commissioners often invited Christian and Jewish speakers. The commissioners' new policy involves only a moment of silence.
“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,” the 11th Circuit unanimously ruled in a 3-0 decision last year. “Brevard County’s process of selecting invocation speakers thus runs afoul of the Establishment Clause.”
The commissioners had defended the old policy by saying invocations were presented by “members of our faith community” and appeal for “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 Country’s heritage and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens in Brevard County,” the board had told the Central Florida Freethought Community. “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.”
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, The Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.