The head of group of atheists and agnostics says the Brevard County Commission is practicing religious discrimination by rebuffing its request to deliver the invocation at a future commission meeting.
David Williamson, the founder and chair of the Central Florida Freethought Community, said his group includes people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics, humanists, free-thinkers or skeptics.
County Commission Chair Mary Bolin Lewis is asking the commission's permission to send a response to Williamson's request, indicating that Oviedo-based group is not the type of organization that qualifies to present the invocation, but is free to address the board for three minutes during the public-comment period near the end of commission meetings.
"The invocation portion of the agenda is an opening prayer, presented by members of our faith community," Bolin Lewis wrote in draft letter. "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. 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."
In a letter to Bolin Lewis, with the subject line "discrimination against a religious minority," Williamson wrote: "If the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners continues to open its meetings with invocations by invited guests and clergy, it must not categorically exclude certain faiths from inclusion in the practice. In this case, the board is excluding members of our organization, that of a minority religion, from the same opportunity as members of majority religions."
County commissioners are scheduled to discuss the issue at their meeting on Tuesday.
Bolin Lewis said in her letter that Central Florida Freethought Community's 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. However, this commission chooses to stand by the tradition of opening its meetings in a manner acknowledging the beliefs of a large segment of its constituents."
Williamson said he has made similar requests to 20 counties, cities and towns in Central Florida. As a result, a representative of his organization already has delivered invocations or similar remarks before six government bodies, and is scheduled to do so or has permission to do so at seven others. Seven requests are pending.
He said Brevard County "should think twice before they send a letter of denial," adding that an offer to speak during the public-comment time is not enough.
"I would equate that to separate, but equal," Williamson said, alluding to the time of racial segregation in the United States.
Currently, the five county commissioners, on a rotating basis, select the clergy for invocation.
Brevard County Attorney Scott Knox said, based on his interpretation of court rulings, the County Commission can limit the invocations to the "faith-based community," as long as an organization like the Central Florida Freethought Community has an opportunity to express its views at another time during the meeting.
Knox — who helped craft the proposed response letter to Williamson — said, in his 20 years working for the county, he cannot recall an instance in which an atheist organization sought to deliver the invocation at a County Commission meeting.
IF YOU GO
The Brevard County Commission is scheduled to discuss the meeting invocation issue at its meeting that begins at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Brevard County Government Center, Commission Board Room, first floor, Building C, 2725 Judge Fran Jamieson Way, Viera.