Appeals court upholds prayers at city’s meetings

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A federal appeals court this week upheld the constitutionality of prayers before meetings of the Lakeland City Commission, rejecting atheists’ arguments that the practice promotes Christianity.

Lakeland is one of numerous local governments across the state that opens meetings with prayers, often led by clergy. Atheists of Florida, Inc., filed a lawsuit in 2010 challenging Lakeland, but a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the city.

The court said Lakeland has acted legally after putting in place a 2010 policy that included a process for selecting speakers from a wide range of congregations. That policy also, for example, said invocations would not be listed as part of the public business of meetings and that employees, commission members and members of the public would not be required to participate.

“The selection procedures of the invocational speakers invited to deliver an invocation at (the) Lakeland City Commission’s meetings pursuant to policies and practices … do not support the AOF’s contention that Lakeland attempted to exploit the prayer opportunity to proselytize or advance or disparage any one faith or belief,” the court ruled. “Nor do these policies and practices have the effect of affiliating the Lakeland City Commission with any discrete one faith or belief.”

Also, the judges declared moot arguments about Christian prayers before the 2010 policy. 

Atheists of Florida argued that the city’s actions violated the state and federal constitutions, including what is known as the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In a brief filed last year, it tracked prayers given at commission meetings since 2002.

“Prior to the filing of this lawsuit, all but one of the city of Lakeland’s prayers included explicitly Christian references,” the May 2012 brief said. “Since the filing of this lawsuit, that proportion has only changed modestly. The sectarian references have been exclusively, or almost exclusively, Christian.”

In a response filed in June 2012, the city disputed that, historically, only Christian clergy had given invocations. It also argued there was no evidence that the city had “usurped the prayer opportunity to proselytize or to advance or disparage any religion or sect.”

“There is no record … the city has ever provided a speaker with an invocation, edited a speaker’s invocation or prevented a speaker from giving a particular invocation,” the brief said. “Simply put, the city exercises no control whatsoever over the words that flow from the speaker’s mouth.”

The city also won in a lower court, setting up the appeal, which drew briefs from groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Family Research Council. Also, Attorney General Pam Bondi and members of the Legislature and Congress signed on to briefs supporting Lakeland.

Bondi’s brief tried to dispel arguments that Lakeland’s prayers violated part of the Florida Constitution that bars government aid to religion.

“Appellants (the Atheists of Florida) identify no church, sect, religious denomination or sectarian institution that receives ‘aid’ from the ‘public treasury,’ ” the brief said. “Further, appellants fail to establish in any way how (the city’s) invocation practices aid or benefit, directly or indirectly any religious denomination or institution.”

Via Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.