The Wall of Separation May Hold

It’s no secret that the American Humanist Association is concerned about recent attempts to further erode the wall of separation between church and state. The Supreme Court’s decision to allow the Bladensburg cross to stand certainly challenged that standard. However, the decision was a narrow one, and we’re beginning to see the silver lining through the clouds. The separation between religion and government is critical, and protects religion and government alike from undue pressure and interference. Some courtrooms still recognize this, as the recent victory in Williamson v. Brevard County demonstrates.

County commissioners in Brevard County, Florida, have long forbidden atheists, humanists, and non-traditional religious officials from delivering invocations at public board meetings. Equal representation matters, and local government is one of the most valuable spaces in which a marginalized or minority community can make their presence known. Sadly, the county commissioners were actively working against that awareness and recognition. Chapters and affiliates of the American Humanist Association, including the Central Florida Freethought Community, the Humanist Community of the Space Coast, and the Space Coast Freethought Association, filed a lawsuit against the commissioners in 2015, arguing that the commission must open its invocations to all religious and nonreligious community leaders (if there were to be invocations at all).

After an earlier victory in September 2017, last week the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that Brevard County violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The systematic exclusion of minority faith groups from delivering invocations is a clear violation of the Constitution and existing Supreme Court precedent. The Appignani Humanist Legal Center led an amicus (friend-of-the-court) brief in this case, arguing that “[t]he Supreme Court has made clear that even in the context of legislative prayer…the practice must be inclusive and nondiscriminatory towards religious minorities and nonbelievers.”

The decision directly referenced the AHA’s definition of humanism and our work:

According to the American Humanism Association [sic], ‘Humanism is 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.’ … Three of the Secular Humanist plaintiffs have been ordained as humanist clergy by the Humanist Society. The parties agree that the plaintiffs’ beliefs ‘are strongly held and very important to them, having a place in their lives equal to the significance that theistic beliefs have in the lives of Christians, Jews, and adherents of other monotheistic faiths.’

Humanism and humanists belong in interfaith spaces, and legislative openings are no exception. Brevard County Commissioners clearly need reminding that the nonreligious population is present and active in their communities—and won’t back down from a fight.

This victory may have seemed obvious: the Supreme Court decided in Greece v. Galloway that any legislative body that allows prayer must implement policy that forbids discrimination based on faith, including a minority religion or atheism, in deciding who may provide the invocation. Despite this clear legal precedent, our opponents will not stop  in their effort to redefine the First Amendment of the Constitution. Unfortunately for them, we won’t stop defending it.