A federal judge has ruled that a Florida county government's prayer policy that prohibits atheists from delivering invocations at public meetings is unconstitutional.
In his 69-page order, U.S. District Judge John Antoon II concluded that the Brevard County Board's practice of only allowing religious residents to deliver invocations was in violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the Florida Constitution.
"By opening up its invocation practice to volunteer citizens but requiring that those citizens believe in a 'higher power' before they will be permitted to solemnize a board meeting, the County is violating the freedom of religious belief and conscience guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause," the judge wrote.
The lawsuit against the county was filed in 2015 by the Central Florida Freethought Community, the Humanist Community of the Space Coast, the Space Coast Freethought Association and five members of one or more of the said organizations, according to Florida Today.
In 2014, David Williamson of the Central Florida Freethought Community and other atheist leaders had requested to be added to the Brevard County's invocation list. But the county's board of commissioners denied the request, saying Williamson's group did not qualify for the invocation because it is defined as a "prayer presented by members of [the] faith community."
The county board voted unanimously to approve a measure to ban atheist invocations and suggested that the Freethought group should speak instead during the public comment period.
The court did not hold a trial as the two sides did not dispute the facts of the case and only disagreed on whether the county's action was legal or not. But in October 2016, oral arguments were held on the parties' request for what is known as a "summary judgment."
The board cited the 2014 United States Supreme Court decision Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the court ruled that the sectarian prayers can be delivered during government meetings.
Antoon, however, contended that the situation in Brevard County does not align with the prayer practice considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in Greece v. Galloway.
"What happens in Brevard County is a far cry from what happens in the town of Greece. Brevard County does not allow everyone to give an invocation," the judge wrote. "Instead, it limits the prayer opportunity to those it 'deems capable' of doing so–based on the beliefs of the would-be prayer giver," he added.
Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, hailed Friday's ruling, saying it "sends a powerful reminder that no one should be treated as a second-class citizen by their local government."