AHA Letter to Town in Florida Sparks Constitutional Debate

By Monica Miller

A recent letter sent by the Appignani Humanist Legal Center (“AHLC”) to the town of Lady Lake, Florida ignited a vigorous debate about the appropriateness of legislative prayers at public meetings. Receiving significant media attention from the Orlando Sentinel, the Daily Commercial, MyFoxOrlando.com, and WKMG Orlando, AHLC’s letter forced Lady Lake town commissioners to reevaluate their legislative prayer practice in light of the First and Fourteenth Amendment requirements of separation of church and state and equality to all citizens, regardless of religion.

Over the past several months, AHLC has contacted multiple jurisdictions in Florida asking each of them to discontinue the practice of delivering prayers as a regular part of their public meetings.  One of these local governments, the town of Lady Lake, responded in an objectionable fashion – by submitting the issue to a majority vote.

Lady Lake resident and American Humanist Association member Bill Calhoun brought this issue to the AHLC’s attention in late February, explaining that his town opens each of its public meetings with an official Christian prayer. A review of the towns’ agendas from May 2010 through January 2011 revealed that each meeting opened with a Christian prayer and was delivered by a member of a Christian church. This type of government sponsored-religion, AHLC maintains, violates the Constitution.

In 1983, the Supreme Court held in Marsh v. Chambers that legislative prayers are unconstitutional if they attempt to “proselytize or advance any one . . . faith or belief.” More recently in County of Allegheny v. ACLU, the Court further explained that Marsh could not be read to “justify . . .  legislative prayers that have the effect of affiliating the government with any one specific faith or belief.” Accordingly, the AHLC sent a letter to the Lady Lake town attorney and commissioners informing the town that its exclusively Christian prayers violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The letter explained that Supreme Court cases such as Epperson v. Arkansas, stand for the notion that the First Amendment mandates “governmental neutrality between … religion and nonreligion.” The Lady Lake prayers, AHLC wrote, amount to an unconstitutional governmental endorsement of one religion (Christianity) over other religions, and religion over non-religion, in violation of the First Amendment.  AHLC asked the town to end the prayer practice altogether, or at the very least, to invite non-Christian speakers to deliver invocations in the future.

Notwithstanding AHLC’s request and Supreme Court precedent, elected leaders of Lady Lake decided by vote on April 18th, several weeks after receiving the letter, to continue the prayer practice at the start of town commission meetings.  Hundreds of people were packed into the commission chambers and several hundred more were outside cheering and clapping in approval of the 5-0 vote to keep the prayer.

In 2002, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor famously stated in McCreary County v. ACLU, “[w]hen the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual’s decision about whether and how to worship.” This is precisely the issue at stake in Lady Lake.

Unfortunately, of the nearly 500 people that showed up to the April 18th Lady Lake Town Commission meeting to show their support of legislative prayers, few seemed to grasp the importance of the protections that the First Amendment provides.  “God comes first and then our Constitution,” said Pam Dahl, local resident and president of the Tri-County Tea Party. Dr. Paul Harsh, a minister at the First Baptist Church in Lady Lake, expressed a similar sentiment, stating, “I want you to understand that if the town council votes what is right, that is prayer is still going to be practiced here, there are at least three law groups waiting in the wings to aid and defend should they bring any kind of legal action.”  

Yet the town’s decision to vote on the prayer practice itself was wholly inappropriate in light of our nation’s history. The framers of our Constitution, in drafting the Bill of Rights, were primarily concerned with safeguarding minorities from majoritarian oppression. In the words of the Supreme Court in West Virginia Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, the Bill of Rights places “certain subjects…beyond the reach of majorities.” In Barnette, the Court held that fundamental rights “may not be submitted to vote” and “depend on the outcome of no elections.” Because the right to be free from government-sponsored religion is a fundamental right, as all of the protections under the First Amendment are, the town’s vote “misconceive[d] what it is that the Constitution protects.” “Its guarantee,” the Supreme Court stated in Kingsley International Pictures Corp. v. Regents, “is not confined to the expression of ideas that are conventional or shared by a majority.” Thus, when Lady Lake responded to AHLC’s request by submitting the issue to majority vote, the town undermined the entire basis upon which the Bill of Rights is founded upon.

In ruling that a school’s policy permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violates the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court recently stated in Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe that the “majoritarian process…guarantees, by definition, that minority [views] will never prevail and that their views will be effectively silenced.”  Significantly, in Santa Fe, the Court held that a District’s implementation of an electoral process that subjects the issue of prayer to a majoritarian vote amounted to a constitutional violation.  Through its election scheme, the Court found in Santa Fe that the District established a governmental mechanism that turned the school into a forum for religious debate and empowered the student body majority to subject students of minority views to constitutionally improper messages. Like the vote found unconstitutional in Santa Fe, the vote to keep the prayer practice at Lady Lake has similar constitutional infirmities. The vote, which clearly favored the majoritarian Christian viewpoint espoused by the protesters, effectively silenced the views of citizens representing minority religious viewpoints, such as Bill Calhoun.

The recent vote to continue the prayer practice was the culmination of several exchanges between the AHLC and the Lady Lake town attorney.  Prior to the vote, the town initially informed the AHLC that the prayer would be replaced with a secular moment of silence. However, that decision was short-lived as the town subsequently invited a non-Christian clergy member – a rabbi – for the first time ever, to lead the invocation for the next month’s meeting in an attempt to comply an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals case – Pelphrey v. Cobb County.

In Pelphrey, the Eleventh Circuit held that legislative prayers are permissible so long as they are diverse and make references to more than one religion. Although Pelphrey is inconsistent with numerous Supreme Court decisions holding that the government may not endorse religion over non-religion – even under Pelphrey, the town must do more than invite a rabbi every once in a while to lead the legislative prayer. The town involved in the Pelphrey case, for example, had invited Muslim, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist speakers in addition to Christians.

AHLC informed Lady Lake on April 20th that, having opened up the role of beginning meetings with a solemnizing speech to private citizens, it cannot discriminate against any citizen seeking to perform the role performed by clergy on the basis of the religious views of such citizen without violating the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech rights. This means that if Humanist Celebrants in the area wish to deliver the invocation, the town cannot turn them down simply because they are humanists. AHA encourages humanists in the Lady Lake area to deliver one of the town’s invocations in an upcoming public meeting.

Monica Miller is the spring extern for the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, a project of the American Humanist Association.