It is common in Florida for School Boards to open their meetings with a prayer or invocation. The practice lends a sense of solemnity to the meeting and can help to engender a positive atmosphere for discussion and decision-making. However, the practice of opening meetings with a prayer is being increasingly challenged in the courts as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the federal constitution.
On July 8, 2019, the federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Florida, Georgia and Alabama) issued a decision which will have important implications for School Boards and Superintendents in Florida. In Williamson v. Brevard County, a case filed by a group of Secular Humanists and atheists, the court held that Brevard County’s practice of opening its county commission meetings with prayer violated the Establishment Clause. The court made clear in its decision, however, that not all opening prayer practices are invalid. Much depends on the process used to select the persons who will offer the invocation.
In the Brevard County case, the individual commissioners took turns selecting the person to give the invocation. There were no clear guidelines to follow. Instead, each individual commissioner had broad discretion regarding who they would select. In practice, the commissioners selected representatives from only mainstream, monotheistic, faiths. They excluded other religious groups from consideration. For example, they categorically excluded deists, Wiccans, Rastafarians and polytheists, and they would likely exclude Hindus, Sikhs or followers of Native American religion. The court held that this violated the Establishment Clause because the commissioners were excluding certain religious groups based on the content of the groups’ religious beliefs.
Although the court held that Brevard County’s practice was a violation, the court also clarified that not all opening invocations are invalid. The court explained that just because an opening invocation is religious, or even sectarian, does not mean there is a violation – provided the selection process is neutral and does not discriminate against certain religious groups based on their beliefs.
School Boards and local governmental agencies that open their meetings with prayer should review their policies to ensure that their criteria and selection process is compliant with the principles set forth in the Williamson v. Brevard County decision.
Case Information: Williamson v. Brevard County, Case No. 17-15769, 2019 WL 2910807 (11th Cir. July 8, 2019).
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