meetings, the public was asked to rise immediately before the prayer.
Even more egregious,however, were the meetings in which attendees were asked not only to stand but also to bowtheir heads in prayer.
Given these facts, we have reason to believe that the county
‟s actions are
in violation of the Establishment Clause
First, the references to a transparently biblical
“God,” “Almighty God,” “HeavenlyFather,” or “Lord” (and “amen”) in every invocation amounts to an unconstitutional
governmental endorsement of (1) one religion (Christianity) over other religions, and (2) moregenerally, of religion over non-religion.
the Supreme Court‟s ruling in
463 U.S. 783 (1983), legislative prayers are unconstitutional if they attempt to
“proselytize or advance any one
. . .
faith or belief.”
at 794-95. In County of Allegheny v.ACLU
492 U.S. 573 (1989), the Supreme Court explained that Marsh
could not be read to
. . . legislative prayers that have the effect of affiliating the government with any one
specific faith or belief.”
at 603In applying Marsh, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Florida in itsjurisdiction, rejected
the importance of the supposedly “nonsectarian” nature of prayers at local
government meetings in deciding their constitutionality, or even the coherence of that idea,stating that the court
would not know where to begin to demarcate the boundary between
sectarian and nonsectarian expressions.”
Pelphrey v. Cobb County, Ca
547 F.3d 1263,1272 (11
Cir. 2008). In upholding the particular legislative prayers at issue in Pelphrey, thecourt relied on the fact that those prayers did not advance or affiliate the government with
The court observed that the “diverse references in the prayers,” includ
“Allah,” “Mohammed,” and the “Torah,” made it such that the prayers did not “advance anyparticular faith.”
Unlike the prayers at issue in Pelphrey,
Sarasota‟s prayers do
not pass constitutional muster. The prayers are not offered by private members of a variety of
faiths, nor do they reference deities other than the obviously biblical “God” or “HeavenlyFather.” Accordingly, the
prayers create the perception that the countyunconstitutionally endorses Christianity (and, more generally, religion over non-religion) inviolation of the Establishment Clause.The fact that Sarasota County
prayers are delivered by government officials andemployees
heightens our Establishment Clause concerns. The Supreme Court has held that the
The commissioner asked the public to stand before each prayer, by stating
“please rise if you‟re able” in the
following meetings: February 22, 2011, February 8, January 11, 2011, December 17, 2010, December 8, 2010,December 7, 2010, December 1, November 30, November 16, November 10, November 9, October 27, October 26,October 13, October 12, September 29, September 28, September 15, September 14, July 27, July 14, July 13, June23, June 22, June 8, May 26, May 25, May 12, May 11, April 28, March 23, March 17, March 16, 2010.
For instance, the invocation by Kimberley Lance on January 11, 2011, stated (after the commissioner askedeveryone to stand):
Please bow our heads, let us pray, Almighty Father. A
; the invocation by John McCarthyon December 1, 2010, stated (after th
e commissioner asked everyone to stand): “
Let us bow our heads ... lord as we...
Brown v. Orange County Bd. of Public Instruction, 128 So. 2d 181 (1960) (holding that the First Amendment
forbids preferential treatment by government, Federal or State, of one sect or religion over others
), Epperson v.Arkansas
, 393 U.S. 97, 104 (holding that the “First Amendment requires governmental neutrality between . . .religion and nonreligion.”) and
School Dist. of Abington v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 216 (1963) (same).
It appears that every invocation given at every regular meeting held in the past 11 months was a governmentofficial, such as the Health and Human Services Program Analyst (January 25. 2011), Planning and Development