ORLANDO – As Brevard County Commissioners await a judge's ruling over whether they should have denied a free-thought group's request in 2015 to offer a secular invocation, the director of that group already knows they were wrong.
Central Florida Freethought Community Director David Williamson, a plaintiff in the case before U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, Orlando Division, declined to talk about mediation in the case that could settle the matter for $60,000.
"I am glad to talk about why we filed suit and how the county’s discrimination makes me and the members of our organization feel," Williamson said during a Florida Record email interview.
"It has become routine for atheists to be treated like outsiders by friends, family, and others who presume that lack of belief in God equates to being immoral or corrupt. This is what is written in Scripture and is what people learn from their parents and their subculture. Being religious is somehow equated with being good, but we see every day that this stereotype is false."
Whatever faith differences exist between people should not cross the threshold of government, Williamson said.
"When our secular government, which is supposed to fairly represent all people regardless of who they are, engages in the kind of discussions that we’ve seen over the past two years regarding our requests at dozens of city and county meetings, it makes clear that non-believers still have a long way to go before we can achieve the kind of social equality that the LGBTQ community has fought hard to achieve," he said.
Last July, Williamson and members of other like-minded organizations filed their lawsuit in the district court over Brevard County Commission's refusal to allow secular invocations to kick off their meetings. That, plaintiffs in the case claim, was a violation of the U.S. and Florida constitutions. The lawsuit was filed the same day county commissioners voted unanimously to pass a resolution to affirm its policy of allowing only theistic invocations before their meetings.
That 11-page resolution, now one of dozens of pages of exhibits in the case, would allow "atheists, agnostics and Secular Humanists" the opportunity to "present their Secular Humanist or atheistic invocations, supplications, instruction, petitions for redress of grievances or comments, all of which can be presented during the portion of the agenda reserved for secular business matters."
"This litigation was filed after no less than five letters were sent to the Brevard County Commission requesting equal treatment over a period of 14 months," Williamson said. "These requests resulted in three unanimous votes which sent us to 'the back of the bus' so to speak. While the county contends that we are being treated fairly by letting us speak in the public comment period, this is vastly different than the privileged position they routinely offer their Christian clergy members at the beginning of the meeting - the time designated as the ceremonial portion of the meeting."
Earlier this month, the county and Central Florida Freethought Community agreed to a settlement amount of $60,000 during mediation prior to the court's ruling. A decision is expected later this summer. Brevard County Attorney Scott L. Knox told the Florida Record he has no thoughts on how the judge might rule.
"Since we are in federal court, pleadings and responses are all in writing," he said. "We have not had any interaction with the judge yet, so there is no way to gauge what the result will be at this point."
On June 22, the case was placed before a district court judge in the form of cross-motions for summary judgment, Knox said.
Williamson also declined to say how the case may go, but did say he and other plaintiffs expect to be heard.
"We will not be denied equal treatment and I truly hope the judge will see this for exactly what it is," he said. "This is religious discrimination by local elected officials and it goes against what we stand for."