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Williamson v. Brevard Cty. - 928 F.3d 1296 (11th Cir. 2019)

Rule:

Where a 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 county's process of selecting invocation speakers thus runs afoul of the Establishment Clause.

Facts:

The Brevard County Board of County Commissioners, a political subdivision of Florida, was inviting invocation speakers for the specific purpose of making an opening prayer. The speakers were typically volunteer clergy invited by staff members of the Commissioners. All of the invocations given before the Brevard County Board from January 1, 2010 through March 15, 2016 had at least some theistic content, i.e., they all expressed a “belief in the existence of a god or gods.” More than that, they all contained specifically monotheistic content, meaning that they were in line with “the doctrine or belief that there is but one God.” Plaintiffs, five individuals and three organizations, which identified as either atheists or Secular Humanists, filed a complaint arguing that the opening prayers were violative of the Establishment Clause. Moreover, the plaintiffs argued that the County had wrongfully barred them from offering invocations of their own. The district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, holding that by allowing invocations only by volunteers who believed in "a higher power, the County created a religious test for participation in government affairs, thereby violating the freedom of conscience guaranteed by the First Amendment. The County appealed.

Issue:

Did the County violate the Establishment Clause by allowing invocations only by volunteers who believed in “a higher power?”

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that the Commissioners' method for selecting invocation speakers violated the Establishment Clause because the Commissioners' resolution providing for speaker selection facially drew distinctions between preferred monotheistic religions and disfavored other religions; furthermore, the speaker selection procedures as practiced took religious beliefs into account and favored some creeds over others. In particular, commissioner members had plenary authority, on a rotating basis, to invite whomever they wanted to deliver invocations, with no consistent standards or expectation of inclusiveness. The Court noted that in the actual selection process, some religions were scrutinized more closely than others, and other religions were categorically excluded from consideration by the Commissioners, who rejected speakers based squarely on the nature of the religious beliefs they held.

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