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).
For more information, contact:
James J. Dean, Esq.