Florida Invocation Policies Should Be All or None

Unlike a traditional prayer, a humanist invocation does not call upon a supernatural entity as a guide. Instead, it motivates us to guide ourselves and others to live good lives in service to the general welfare of our communities and humanity as a whole. A humanist invocation calls upon those involved in a public forum or legislative session to exercise their humanity while highlighting our shared human values and recognizing our responsibility to take action. Invocators endorsed by The Humanist Society often encourage solemn reflection, quote inspirational religious and secular leaders, cite the Constitution or Declaration of Independence, and call for inclusion and equality.

Sounds great, right? Not to some councilmembers in Florida.

On May 3, 2021, David Williamson, co-founder of the American Humanist Association (AHA) affiliate Central Florida Freethought Community, gave an invocation on being “here to serve in the best interests of all citizens of the city, not just for those like us” and reminded the Oviedo city council that they meet in a “sacred yet secular chamber.” But then, councilmember Judith Dolores Smith disrespected the process by adding an impromptu Christian prayer. It happened again the very next day in another Florida county. On May 4th, Sarah Ray, co-founder of the AHA affiliate Atheist Community of Polk County (ACPC), provided an invocation for the Board of County Commissioners in Polk County on our linked humanity. She emphasized that “when we work together to move our community forward in a spirit of mutual respect and common decency, we showcase what is best about our County.” (She even included a Star Wars Day joke.) Yet, that didn’t satisfy Chairman Rick Wilson, who immediately directed all to stand, bow their heads, and thank God the Father.

Unfortunately, this disregard isn’t new to Williamson, Ray, or others across the country trying to deliver brief words of inspiration before diving into business. Religious council members have stayed seated, talked to each other, and even walked out of the chambers to avoid hearing secular affirmations. What is new is that, starting in January 2022, invocations in Polk County, Florida will only be led by one of five fire rescue chaplains. Commissioner Bill Braswell proposed the change ten days after Ray’s invocation and, although he claimed it didn’t spur his proposal, it’s difficult to ignore his comment regarding the county’s first atheist invocation in May 2019: “I’ve never heard an atheist give an invocation before so it should be interesting. As long as there isn’t any pig’s blood or a goat’s head, I think we’ll be OK.”

Each year, Polk County employees send out more than 1,000 letters inviting people to give invocations, then they book about 20 for the year. Braswell noted that religious leaders often don’t show up for their assigned meeting or cancel, which then burdens staff to find last-minute replacements (which happened eight times in 2020 and four times in 2021). They’re essentially replacing a big pool of public speaking volunteers—that includes some unreliable folks—with a very small pool of highly educated, trained, and potentially busier volunteers (some of whom may be employed by a fire department or compensated by an outside agency). Fire chaplains are needed for various emergencies throughout the county each day so it’s unlikely they will be more reliable than religious leaders. Before the resolution vote on November 30th (resolution text), Councilman Randy M. Mink admitted that the current volunteer chaplains are not representative of all spectrums of belief and nonbelief but “the push for fire rescue is to open that up for all individuals who would like to volunteer as chaplains as long as they meet the requirements of the standard guidelines.” If the county provides information on how to become a fire chaplain, Humanist Chaplains in the area would happily apply.

Before the unanimous vote to approve the change, David Williamson shared a passionate final plea to the council to keep the previous inclusive policy or end invocations altogether, preferably replacing them with a moment of silence. These recommendations were also shared in an unacknowledged October 1st letter to commissioners sent by Freedom from Religion Foundation, ACPC, Central Florida Freethought Community, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The letter cited several cases of non-discriminatory invocation policies, including the 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway (which included a plaintiff from an AHA chapter) decision that “a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give an invocation.”

At this time, the ACPC has decided to move away from invocations to focus more on community service and bridge-building. They are “looking forward to a time when our local leaders can stop focusing on the belief or nonbelief of folks who give invocations, and instead work with us on alleviating poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness in our community…because those are the issues ACPC is most passionate about.”

Invocations can still be a powerful way for humanists to engage with their local communities and publicize humanism. “If there will be prayers at government meetings, local activists must ensure that secular voices are included,” said Williamson. Find out if invocations are happening in your area (you can check council minutes and social media), look into the requirements for providing an invocation, and then apply to be heard, or help someone else do it. If your local invocations aren’t open to nonreligious folks, please report that to the AHA’s legal team. If invocations are going to continue instead of using a moment of silence, then humanist voices must be heard.