Ordinance creates a “no-win situation” and “roadmap for how to sue the county”

December 4, 2012

ACLU of Florida Media Office,786-363-2737, media@aclufl.org

MIAMI - The Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners today voted 8-3 in favor of an ordinance that would replace the county’s respectful and inclusive policy of allowing for a moment of silence before commission meetings with one that would allow for government-invited religious prayers.

The following statement on today’s vote may be attributed to Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida:

“No one should be surprised when politicians cave in to a group of religious zealots, and in one way or another, chip away at the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state. That happens all over the country; it’s the easiest thing for politicians; it’s how lawsuits against school boards, city councils and county commissions are born. The Ordinance that the Commission adopted today puts the County in a ‘no-win’ situation and is a roadmap for how to sue the County.

“If prayers are sectarian in nature, the County will be sued; courts have reaffirmed that a sectarian prayer program affiliating the government with one faith is not permissible. That means that as soon as some prayer-giver says ‘Let us stand and bow our heads and pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior,’ which I presume is what proponents want, the Commission is likely to be sued.

“Even if the prayers are offered by a randomly chosen group of prayer-givers but the practice (in the words of a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling this past May) “conveys to a reasonable objective observer” the affiliation of the Commission or its endorsement of a particular religion - that will “violate the clear command of the Establishment Clause” and the Commission will be sued.

“If Commissioners censor the prayers or instruct a prayer-giver, so that the prayer is blandly ‘nonsectarian’ – the Commission could be sued for censorship of religious speech or establishing a ‘civic religion.’

“If someone is excluded from being considered eligible to deliver an invocation to solemnize a Commission meeting (which is how the Ordinance describes its purpose) because they are not a leader of a religious congregation appearing in the telephone book, but a respected non-religious leader of our community, the Commission could be sued.

“This is a no-win situation – it is not merely that the Moment of Silence is respectful of the diversity of our community, a community with ‘a wide constellation of religious beliefs and non-beliefs,’ the Moment of Silence protects the Commission from legal liability.

“This November, the people of Florida conducted a referendum on the separation of church and state, and by an overwhelming margin reaffirmed Florida’s long-standing Constitutional provision of ‘No Aid’ to religion contained in Article I, Section 3 of our State Constitution. This means that the expenditure of any monies by our County Commission for a religious purpose (for example, to compile and maintain a list of leaders of religious congregations to be invited to deliver a prayer) may be yet another, state constitutional, basis to sue the County

“But what is disheartening is to hear some commissioners say that they don’t even understand why anyone would be offended by attending a meeting of their own county commission only to be asked to stand, bow their heads, and pray to Jesus Christ our lord and savior, or some other deity or some sacred scripture of a religious tradition that is not their own.

“That some commissioners don’t even understand why that would offend or trouble someone is an indication that, though we pride ourselves on being a diverse community, we really live in silos and in isolation.”

The ACLU of Florida had previously sent a letter to commissioners urging against passage of the proposed ordinance, warning that it was divisive and could open the county up to litigation. A copy of that letter is available here: http://aclufl.org/pdfs/2012-11-28-ACLUMiamiDadeComLetter.pdf

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