Atheists of Fla. Inc. v. City of Lakeland, Case No. 8:10–CV–1538–T–17.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
Writing for the CourtORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS
Citation779 F.Supp.2d 1330
PartiesATHEISTS OF FLORIDA, INC. and Ellenbeth Wachs, Plaintiffs,v.CITY OF LAKELAND, FLORIDA and Mayor Gow Fields in his official capacity as Chairman of the Lakeland City Commission and in his individual capacity, Defendants.
Decision Date15 March 2011
Docket NumberCase No. 8:10–CV–1538–T–17.

779 F.Supp.2d 1330

ATHEISTS OF FLORIDA, INC. and Ellenbeth Wachs, Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF LAKELAND, FLORIDA and Mayor Gow Fields in his official capacity as Chairman of the Lakeland City Commission and in his individual capacity, Defendants.

Case No. 8:10–CV–1538–T–17.

United States District Court, M.D. Florida.

March 15, 2011.


[779 F.Supp.2d 1332]

Eric O. Husby, Law Offices of Eric O. Husby, PA, Tampa, FL, for Plaintiffs.Kristie Hatcher-Bolin, Mark Nelson Miller, Grayrobinson, PA, Lakeland, FL, for Defendants.
ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS
ELIZABETH A. KOVACHEVICH, District Judge.

This cause is before the Court on Defendants', City of Lakeland and Mayor Gow Fields, Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 15) and Plaintiffs', Atheists of Florida, Inc. and Ellenbeth Wachs, response thereto (Doc. 21). For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is DENIED IN PART, as to Counts I and II, and GRANTED IN PART, as to Counts III and IV. The following facts, gleaned from Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint (Doc. 10) and the exhibits appended thereto, are taken as true for purposes of this motion.

BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiffs, Atheists of Florida, Inc. and Ellenbeth Wachs (hereinafter “Plaintiffs”), filed this action on July 12, 2010, to challenge Defendants', City of Lakeland and Mayor Gow Fields (hereinafter collectively referred to as “City” or “Defendants”), practice of soliciting and allowing religious ministers to perform prayer rituals, or invocations, before each meeting of the Lakeland City Commission. Plaintiff Atheists of Florida is a nonprofit corporation that “seeks freedom of and from religion [and] equal treatment under the law....” (Doc. 10, ¶ 15). Plaintiff Ellenbeth Wachs is the Director of the Lakeland Chapter of Atheists of Florida, Plaintiffs' four-count complaint (Doc. 10) alleges violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 with regard to the Establishment Clause (Count I), the Equal Protection Clause (Count III), and the Freedom of Speech Clause (Count IV) of the United States Constitution, and also sets out a claim under the Establishment Clause of the Florida Constitution (Count II). Plaintiffs seek declaratory relief pronouncing the Lakeland City Commission's prayer policy illegal, injunctive relief preventing Defendants from continuing the practice, nominal money damages, and attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988.

This case stems from the Lakeland City Commission's practice of beginning each of its bi-monthly meetings with a prayer invocation. Plaintiffs have attended these meetings in the past, viewed them over the Internet, and plan to attend them in the future; they thus claim to have been subjected to unwelcome endorsement of religion

[779 F.Supp.2d 1333]

“with government imprimatur.” (Doc. 10, ¶ 21).

The City maintains a list of religious representatives from which it chooses various clergy to deliver prayers at the beginning of each City Commission meeting. Plaintiffs assert that the City expends considerable financial and administrative resources compiling the list and in mailing invitations to the religious representatives requesting that they present prayers. Prior to August 2, 2010, the City compiled the list of potential prayer-givers by referencing the “Yellow Pages.” Plaintiffs contend that the City's selection process evidences a custom and practice of categorically excluding non-Christian religious groups and the non-religious. They note that the City's 2010 Invocation Schedule originally included only Protestant Christian figures, with the exception of one Catholic priest.

Beginning in March 2010, Plaintiffs began to complain to the City about the prayers at its City Commission meetings. On March 15, 2010, Plaintiffs delivered a letter to Defendant Fields, Mayor of Lakeland, asking that the City dispense with its religious prayer practice and instead offer a “silent moment of reflection” to solemnize the Commission meetings. (Doc. 10, Ex. 2). While Defendant Fields responded in a March 18 letter that “[t]he practice of opening Lakeland City Commission meetings with an invocation has a long history and will continue unless the City Commission decides it should be changed,” he also defended the practice, explaining that “[e]very effort is made to ensure that those offering an inspirational message [are] representative of Lakeland's diverse religious community.” (Doc. 10, Ex. 3).

Following Plaintiffs' initial letter of complaint, the City continued its practice of inviting Christian invocation speakers to offer prayers at the start of City Commission meetings. On May 3, 2010, however, the City invited a Jewish Cantor to give the prayer. According to Plaintiffs, that was the only instance of a non-Christian prayer during the time periods relevant to this suit. In the months to follow. Plaintiffs continued to agitate against the prayer policy and, unsatisfied by the City's response, initiated the instant action on July 12, 2010.

Just a few weeks after the filing of the initial Complaint, on August 2, 2010, the Lakeland City Commission proposed Resolution No. 10–041 (the “Resolution”) for the purpose of “codifying its policy regarding invocations before meetings of the Lakeland City Commission.” (Doc. 10, Ex. 4). The Lakeland City Attorney explained on August 2nd that the Resolution was part of the city's “litigation strategy.” (Doc. 10). The Resolution, which passed by a vote of 6–0 that very same day, begins by explaining that the Commission “wishes to maintain a tradition of solemnizing its proceedings by allowing for an opening invocation before each meeting, for the benefit and blessing of the Commission.” (Doc. 10, Ex. 4). The Resolution then sets forth the relevant Supreme Court and Eleventh Circuit legal precedent regarding legislative prayer and declares that “the Commission intends, and has intended in past practice, to adopt a policy that does not proselytize or advance any faith, or show any purposeful preference of one religious view to the exclusion of others.” (Doc. 10, Ex. 4)

Finally, Resolution 10–041 provides that an invitation to deliver the invocation at a City Commission meeting must be mailed to each entry on the City's official “Congregations List.” The Congregations List is to “be compiled by referencing the listing for ‘churches,’ ‘congregations,’ or other religious assemblies in the annual Yellow Pages phone book(s) published for the [sic] Lakeland and Polk County[,] researched from the Internet, and consultation

[779 F.Supp.2d 1334]

with local chambers of commerce.” Further, “[a]ll religious congregations with an established presence in the local community ... shall be[ ] included in the Congregations List. Any such congregation not otherwise identified for participation may request its inclusion by specific written communication to the Secretary.” The Resolution also removes the invocation from the official meeting agenda and provides for a disclaimer to be placed on the meeting agenda clarifying that “the Commission is not allowed by law to endorse the religious beliefs or views of this, or any other speaker.” (Doc. 10, Ex. 4).

Following the passage of Resolution 10–041, Plaintiffs amended their complaint to include contentions that the Resolution itself codifies an unconstitutional practice and that, in the alternative, the City has failed to follow the Resolution's enumerated policy for selecting prayer-givers and for ensuring that the invocation is given before the start of the Commission meeting's official business. Approximately one month after passing the Resolution, on September 8, 2010, the City filed the instant Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 15).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 8(a)(2) requires that a plaintiff's complaint lay out “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief” in order to “give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957). That said, “[w]hile a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Therefore, “to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must now contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’ ” Am. Dental Ass'n v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1289 (11th Cir.2010) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955). In considering a motion to dismiss, courts must follow a simple, two-pronged approach: “1) eliminate any allegations in the complaint that are merely legal conclusions; and 2) where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, ‘assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.’ ” Id. at 1290 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009)). In sum, the “pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,’ but demands more than an unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955).

DISCUSSION

At the threshold, and before considering the merits of the City's substantive attacks under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must consider Defendants' contention that the passage of Resolution 10–041 renders this cause moot. North Carolina v. Rice, 404 U.S. 244, 245–246, 92 S.Ct. 402, 30 L.Ed.2d 413 (1971) (explaining that mootness is a threshold question); see Sheely v. MRI Radiology Network, P.A., 505 F.3d 1173, 1182 (11th Cir.2007) (noting that a dismissal on mootness grounds is...

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14 practice notes
  • Doe v. Pittsylvania Cnty., Va., Civil Action No. 4:11cv00043.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Western District of Virginia)
    • February 3, 2012
    ...Clause challenge where the Town Council continued its practice of sectarian prayer); Atheists of Fla., Inc. v. City of Lakeland, 779 F.Supp.2d 1330, 1337 (M.D.Fla.2011) (“Ultimately, because Plaintiffs contend not only that the City's official policy is unconstitutional, but also that the C......
  • Fields v. Speaker of the Pa. House of Representatives, Civil Action No. 1:16-CV-1764.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Pennsylvania
    • April 28, 2017
    ...Tenn. 2015).86 See, e.g., Simpson, 404 F.3d at 288 ; Coleman, 104 F.Supp.3d at 890–91 ; Atheists of Fla., Inc. v. City of Lakeland, 779 F.Supp.2d 1330, 1341–42 (M.D. Fla. 2011) (quoting Simpson, 404 F.3d at 288 ); see also Turner v. City Council of City of Fredericksburg, 534 F.3d 352, 356 ......
  • Atheists of Fla., Inc. v. City of Lakeland, Case No. 8:10–cv–1538–T–17–MAP.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • February 22, 2012
    ...to Counts III and IV of the complaint, leaving only Counts I and II for resolution here. Atheists of Fla., Inc. v. City of Lakeland, 779 F.Supp.2d 1330, 1332 (M.D.Fla.2011). After extensive discovery, the parties submitted the instant cross-motions for summary judgment.STATEMENT OF FACTS Fo......
  • Williamson v. Brevard Cnty., Case No: 6:15–cv–1098–Orl–28DCI
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • September 30, 2017
    ...of legislative prayer claims grounded in clauses other than the Establishment Clause. In Atheists of Fla., Inc., v. City of Lakeland, 779 F.Supp.2d 1330 (M.D. Fla. 2011) (Kovachevich, J.), atheists sued to enjoin a prayer practice involving invocations given by religious ministers, assertin......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
14 cases
  • Doe v. Pittsylvania Cnty., Va., Civil Action No. 4:11cv00043.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Western District of Virginia)
    • February 3, 2012
    ...Clause challenge where the Town Council continued its practice of sectarian prayer); Atheists of Fla., Inc. v. City of Lakeland, 779 F.Supp.2d 1330, 1337 (M.D.Fla.2011) (“Ultimately, because Plaintiffs contend not only that the City's official policy is unconstitutional, but also that the C......
  • Fields v. Speaker of the Pa. House of Representatives, Civil Action No. 1:16-CV-1764.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Pennsylvania
    • April 28, 2017
    ...Tenn. 2015).86 See, e.g., Simpson, 404 F.3d at 288 ; Coleman, 104 F.Supp.3d at 890–91 ; Atheists of Fla., Inc. v. City of Lakeland, 779 F.Supp.2d 1330, 1341–42 (M.D. Fla. 2011) (quoting Simpson, 404 F.3d at 288 ); see also Turner v. City Council of City of Fredericksburg, 534 F.3d 352, 356 ......
  • Atheists of Fla., Inc. v. City of Lakeland, Case No. 8:10–cv–1538–T–17–MAP.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • February 22, 2012
    ...to Counts III and IV of the complaint, leaving only Counts I and II for resolution here. Atheists of Fla., Inc. v. City of Lakeland, 779 F.Supp.2d 1330, 1332 (M.D.Fla.2011). After extensive discovery, the parties submitted the instant cross-motions for summary judgment.STATEMENT OF FACTS Fo......
  • Williamson v. Brevard Cnty., Case No: 6:15–cv–1098–Orl–28DCI
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
    • September 30, 2017
    ...of legislative prayer claims grounded in clauses other than the Establishment Clause. In Atheists of Fla., Inc., v. City of Lakeland, 779 F.Supp.2d 1330 (M.D. Fla. 2011) (Kovachevich, J.), atheists sued to enjoin a prayer practice involving invocations given by religious ministers, assertin......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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