Williamson v. Brevard Cnty., Case No: 6:15–cv–1098–Orl–28DCI

CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Florida
Writing for the CourtJOHN ANTOON II, United States District Judge
Citation276 F.Supp.3d 1260
Parties David WILLIAMSON, Chase Hansel, Keith Becher, Ronald Gordon, Jeffery Koeberl, Central Florida Freethought Community, Space Coast Freethought Association and Humanist Community of the Space Coast, Plaintiffs, v. BREVARD COUNTY, Defendant.
Docket NumberCase No: 6:15–cv–1098–Orl–28DCI
Decision Date30 September 2017

276 F.Supp.3d 1260

David WILLIAMSON, Chase Hansel, Keith Becher, Ronald Gordon, Jeffery Koeberl, Central Florida Freethought Community, Space Coast Freethought Association and Humanist Community of the Space Coast, Plaintiffs,
v.
BREVARD COUNTY, Defendant.

Case No: 6:15–cv–1098–Orl–28DCI

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Orlando Division.

Signed September 30, 2017


276 F.Supp.3d 1262

Alex J. Luchenitser (argued), Bradley S. Girard (argued), Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Washington, DC; Nancy G. Abudu and Daniel S. Tilley, ACLU of Florida, Miami, FL; Rebecca S. Markert and Andrew L. Seidel, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Madison, WI; and Daniel Mach, ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Washington, DC, for Plaintiffs.

Scott L. Knox (argued), Viera, FL, for Defendant.

ORDER

JOHN ANTOON II, United States District Judge

The Board of County Commissioners of Brevard County, Florida, holds regular meetings to conduct the business of the county, and it begins its meetings with invocations delivered by citizens. But the County has a policy and practice barring certain citizens from giving the invocation based on those citizens' religious beliefs.

The Plaintiffs in this case primarily assert that the County's invocation practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. They also bring claims under the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and Article I, Sections 2 and 3 of the Florida Constitution. Plaintiffs seek injunctive and declaratory relief as well as money damages. The case is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, and as set forth below, both motions are granted in part and denied in part.

276 F.Supp.3d 1263

1. Factual and Procedural Background1

A. The Parties

This case was brought by eight Plaintiffs—five individuals and three organizations. The individual Plaintiffs—David Williamson, Chase Hansel, Keith Becher, Ronald Gordon, and Jeffrey Koeberl—identify themselves as atheists, and all but Gordon also identify themselves as Secular Humanists. (ASOF ¶ 85). The American Humanism Association describes Humanism as "a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism and other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity." (Id. ¶ 86). Becher, Koeberl, and Williamson are ordained as Humanist clergy by the Humanist Society; all three are Humanist Celebrants, and Koeberl is also a Humanist Chaplain. (Id. ¶ 93).

Plaintiffs do not profess a belief in the existence of God. (Id. ¶ 209). Their beliefs are strongly held, having a place in their lives equal to the significance of theistic beliefs in the lives of monotheists. (Id. ¶ 91). They consider their beliefs to be a religion. (Id. ¶ 92). Four of the individual Plaintiffs are residents of Brevard County; Williamson lives in neighboring Seminole County. (Id. ¶ 83). Hansel and Gordon own homes in Brevard County and pay property taxes there. (Id. ¶ 84).

The three organizational Plaintiffs are the Humanist Community of the Space Coast (HCSC), the Space Coast Freethought Association (SCFA), and the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), all of which "are organizations for nontheists" whose members are principally atheists, agnostics, Humanists, and other nontheists. (Id. ¶¶ 94–95). HCSC and SCFA are headquartered in Brevard County, where most of their members live. (Id. ¶ 96). CFFC is headquartered in Seminole County, but some of its members reside in Brevard County. (Id. ). Plaintiff Gordon is a member of SCFA, (id. ¶ 101), and the other individual Plaintiffs are leaders of the organizational Plaintiffs,2 (id. ¶¶ 98–99).

Defendant Brevard County is a political subdivision of the State of Florida that had a population of nearly 550,000 in 2010. (Id. ¶ 1; Doc. 53–8 at 50). The County is known as Florida's Space Coast because of the presence of NASA and the Kennedy Space Center. (Doc. 53–8 at 37). The Brevard County Board of County Commissioners (the Board) is the legislative and governing body of the County. (ASOF ¶ 2). The Board has five Commissioners, each of whom represents, and is elected by, voters residing in one of five numbered single-member districts that make up the County. (Id. ¶ 8). Pursuant to a state statute, "[t]he county commissioners shall sue and be sued in the name of the County." (Id. ¶ 9; § 125.15, Fla. Stat.).

276 F.Supp.3d 1264

B. Board Meetings

The Board meets regularly—typically more than once per month—to discuss issues, hear from citizens, and carry out its responsibilities. (ASOF ¶ 10). The meetings are conducted in a boardroom that is approximately sixty feet wide and seventy feet deep and has 196 seats for audience members and a total capacity of 270.3 (Id. ¶¶ 10, 18, & 22). During Board meetings, the five Commissioners, the County Manager, and the County Attorney sit on a raised dais facing the audience; the number of attendees varies from fewer than ten to a full house. (Id. ¶¶ 20–21, 27). Board meetings proceed according to printed agendas, are open to the public, are carried live on cable television, are available for public viewing on the Board's website, and can be watched live on a television in a lobby just outside the boardroom entrance. (Id. ¶¶ 12–13). During its meetings, the Board sometimes considers and votes on matters that affect only one person or a small group of people. (Id. ¶ 30).

Board meetings typically begin with a call to order that is then followed by: an invocation; the pledge of allegiance; "resolutions, awards, and presentations"; consent agenda items; and other scheduled matters, including at least one "Public Comment" period.4 (Id. ¶¶ 35, 64, & 141–43). During the "resolutions, awards, and presentations" segment of the meetings, individuals or groups are recognized for contributions they have made to the community, and children sometimes appear before the Board to be honored or to watch those who are being honored. (Id. ¶¶ 36–39). Generally, those who attend the "resolutions, awards, and presentations" segment are also present in the boardroom during the invocation. (Id. ¶¶ 38 & 42). Ordinarily, there are more people at the beginning of Board meetings than at the end; usually, some attendees leave before the "Public Comment" segment. (Id. ¶ 145).

C. Invocations and Selection of Invocation Speakers in the County

Board meetings "are typically opened with a religious invocation" that is "generally, but not always, given by a cleric from the faith-based community." (Id. ¶¶ 14, 56). Invocation speakers are unpaid volunteers invited by an individual Commissioner or his or her staff; the five Commissioners take turns inviting speakers according to an annual schedule assigning that task for each meeting. (Id. ¶¶ 43, 45, & 49; Anderson Dep., Doc. 42, at 12–13; see also 2013–2014 Invocation and Pledge Schedule, Pls.' Ex. 645 ). On occasion, the assigned Commissioner has difficulty finding someone to give an opening invocation or a scheduled speaker does not show up, and on those occasions either a Commissioner gives the invocation, a member of the audience is permitted to give the invocation, or a moment of silence is held in lieu of the invocation. (ASOF ¶¶ 50–51 & 203; see also, e.g., Pls.' Exs. 30 & V26 (transcript

276 F.Supp.3d 1265

and video of Dec. 15, 2015 and Mar. 15, 2016 invocations) (pastor did not show up and a commissioner gave the invocation); Pls.' Exs. 29, 30, & V2 (speaker list, transcript, and video of Mar. 9, 2010 invocation) (reverend did not show up and a Commissioner's assistant gave the invocation); Pls.' Exs. 30 & V2 (transcript and video of Sept. 13, 2011 invocation) (unidentified audience member gave invocation when no one was scheduled); Pls.' Exs. 30 & V2 (transcript and video of Aug. 19, 2014 invocation) (moment of silence observed when pastor did not arrive on time to meeting)).

Not all invited speakers are clergy; non-clergy who have delivered opening invocations include police officers, staff members of a Congressman's office, a state judge, aides to the Commissioners, and a lay leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (ASOF ¶ 57). Chaplains of hospitals, a baseball team, the Brevard County Sheriff's Office, and a city police department have also given invocations. (Id. ¶ 59).

The selected invocation speaker's name, along with the name of the organization he or she represents, often appears on the meeting agenda. (Id. ¶ 65; see also July 7, 2015 Agenda, Doc. 54–2 at 6). The Commissioner who invites the speaker typically introduces the speaker. (ASOF ¶ 66). Some Board Chairpersons ask the audience to stand up for the invocation "out of respect for the religion of the person giving the invocation." (Id. ¶¶ 67–68). Other Chairpersons merely stand up and the other Commissioners and the audience generally follow suit and stand as well, though on occasion some audience members do not stand. (Id. ¶¶...

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5 practice notes
  • Fields v. Speaker of the Pa. House of Representatives, Nos. 18-2974 & 18-3167
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • August 23, 2019
    ..."necessarily requires that a ‘higher power’ be invoked" may be "overly narrow" by current standards. Williamson v. Brevard Cty. , 276 F. Supp. 3d 1260, 1281 (M.D. Fla. 2017), aff’d in part on other grounds , 928 F.3d 1296 (11th Cir. 2019). But modern, evolving standards are not our lodestar......
  • 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
    • August 29, 2018
    ...strikingly similar to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives' policy to be unconstitutional. In Williamson v. Brevard County, 276 F.Supp.3d 1260 (M.D. Fla. 2017), atheist and Secular Humanist plaintiffs challenged a county policy permitting only theistic presenters to deliver the opening......
  • Fields v. Speaker of Pa. House of Representatives, No. 18-2974
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • August 23, 2019
    ..."necessarily requires that a 'higher power' be invoked" may be "overly narrow" by current standards. Williamson v. Brevard Cty., 276 F. Supp. 3d 1260, 1281 (M.D. Fla. 2017), aff'd in part on other grounds, 928 F.3d 1296 (11th Cir. 2019). But modern, evolving standards are not our lodestar w......
  • Napolitano v. St. Joseph Catholic Church, Case No. 5D19-3112
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • December 18, 2020
    ...those clauses are generally interpreted in the same manner as their federal counterparts. See, e.g. , Williamson v. Brevard Cnty. , 276 F. Supp. 3d 1260, 1297 (M.D. Fla. 2017) ; Todd v. State , 643 So. 2d 625, 628 n.3 (Fla. 1st DCA 1994). Consequently, the jurisdiction of Florida's Article ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
5 cases
  • Fields v. Speaker of the Pa. House of Representatives, Nos. 18-2974 & 18-3167
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • August 23, 2019
    ..."necessarily requires that a ‘higher power’ be invoked" may be "overly narrow" by current standards. Williamson v. Brevard Cty. , 276 F. Supp. 3d 1260, 1281 (M.D. Fla. 2017), aff’d in part on other grounds , 928 F.3d 1296 (11th Cir. 2019). But modern, evolving standards are not our lodestar......
  • 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
    • August 29, 2018
    ...strikingly similar to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives' policy to be unconstitutional. In Williamson v. Brevard County, 276 F.Supp.3d 1260 (M.D. Fla. 2017), atheist and Secular Humanist plaintiffs challenged a county policy permitting only theistic presenters to deliver the opening......
  • Fields v. Speaker of Pa. House of Representatives, No. 18-2974
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • August 23, 2019
    ..."necessarily requires that a 'higher power' be invoked" may be "overly narrow" by current standards. Williamson v. Brevard Cty., 276 F. Supp. 3d 1260, 1281 (M.D. Fla. 2017), aff'd in part on other grounds, 928 F.3d 1296 (11th Cir. 2019). But modern, evolving standards are not our lodestar w......
  • Napolitano v. St. Joseph Catholic Church, Case No. 5D19-3112
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • December 18, 2020
    ...those clauses are generally interpreted in the same manner as their federal counterparts. See, e.g. , Williamson v. Brevard Cnty. , 276 F. Supp. 3d 1260, 1297 (M.D. Fla. 2017) ; Todd v. State , 643 So. 2d 625, 628 n.3 (Fla. 1st DCA 1994). Consequently, the jurisdiction of Florida's Article ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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