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American Atheists Inc. v. Levy County

United States District Court, N.D. Florida

December 3, 2017

American Atheists, Inc., and Charles R. Sparrow, Plaintiffs,
Levy County, Defendant.


          Mark E. Walker United States District Judge

         This case involves claims under the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. Specifically, Plaintiffs challenge the presence of a religious monument on government property and the denial of their application to place a secular monument in the same location. However, Plaintiffs lack standing to bring their claims. Accordingly, Defendant's motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 47, is GRANTED.

         I. Facts[1]

Defendant, Levy County, has its seat of government in Bronson, Florida. Many of Levy County's government offices are located in a single complex in downtown Bronson. Specifically, the complex houses the Levy County Courthouse in addition to offices for the Board of County Commissioners, the Clerk of Court, the Property Appraiser, and the Tax Collector. ECF No. 49-1, at 169. Furthermore, the complex is flanked by the Supervisor of Elections' offices on one side and an administrative building that houses the State Attorney and Public Defender's offices on the other. An aerial photograph of the property is provided below:

         (Image Omitted) [2]

         Sometime around 1996, a group of donors erected a veterans' memorial in the courtyard between the Levy County complex and the adjacent administrative building. ECF No. 48, at 7. The memorial bears a number of military seals and a block of text stating “IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO SERVED OUR COUNTRY IN ALL WARS.” Id. A flagpole was placed next to the memorial sometime later. Id. A picture of the memorial and flagpole, as they stood in June 2009, can be seen below:

         (Image Omitted)

         ECF No. 51-1.

         Sometime in 2008 or 2009, a member of the public inquired with Levy County officials about placing a monument to the Ten Commandments[3] in the same courtyard as the veterans' memorial. ECF No. 48, at 7. After researching the legality of such a placement, the Levy County Attorney concluded that the county “should adopt neutral guidelines to govern the placement of private monuments on County property.” Id. at 8. Guidelines were eventually developed, and the Levy County Board of County Commissioners (“BOCC”) approved them in a vote. Id.

         The first application under the new guidelines came from Tri-County Pregnancy Center, Inc., (“Tri-County”)[4] in November 2009. Id. at 11. Tri-County's application was for a six-foot tall, five-foot wide “display of the Ten Commandments.” ECF No. 50-23, at 1-2. The BOCC approved Tri-County's application, and the monument (“Monument”) was placed in the courtyard next to the flagpole.[5] ECF No. 48, at 11-13.

         The veteran's memorial, flagpole, and Monument can be seen in the following picture (from left to right):

         (Image Omitted)

         ECF No. 51-3.

         In January 2014, Plaintiff Charles Sparrow applied to place a monument in the courtyard on behalf of Williston Atheists.[6] ECF No. 50-1. The monument in question was a “[g]ranite bench dedicated to citizens of Levy County who are non-believers and who are not represented by the Ten Commandments monument.” Id. at 1. The Levy County Attorney prepared a staff report noting that Sparrow's application failed to comply with the county's monument-placement guidelines. ECF No. 48, at 15. The BOCC later denied the application. Id. at 16.

         In March 2014, Sparrow submitted an “appeal and amended monument placement application.” ECF No. 50-5. This time the application was filed on behalf of both Williston Atheists and Plaintiff American Atheists, Inc. (“American Atheists”).[7] Id. at 1. Once again, the Levy County Attorney prepared a staff report noting defects in the application. ECF No. 48, at 16-18. And the BOCC once again denied the application. Id. at 18. Subsequently, Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit. ECF No. 1.

         II. Plaintiffs' Claims

         Plaintiffs' complaint is no paragon of clarity. See ECF No. 1. Despite Plaintiffs' failure to enumerate a single count, this Court discerns two claims from the complaint. First, Plaintiffs claim that the presence of the Monument in the Levy County courtyard violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. See Id. at 5. Second, Plaintiffs claim that Levy County's denial of Plaintiffs' appeal and amended monument placement application violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[8] See Id. at 6. For both of these violations, Plaintiffs seek declaratory relief, injunctive relief, and nominal damages. See Id. at 5-7.

         A. The Establishment Clause Claim

         Before this Court can consider the merits of Plaintiffs' claim, this Court must first determine whether Plaintiffs have standing. Standing is the “irreducible constitutional minimum” necessary to make a justiciable “case” or “controversy” under Article III, Section 2, of the United States Constitution. Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 559-60 (1992). To have standing, a plaintiff must prove that (1) he suffered an “injury in fact, ” (2) the injury is causally connected to the defendant's conduct, and (3) the injury is “likely” to be “redressed by a favorable decision” of the court. Id. at 560- 61. This Court finds that Plaintiffs have failed to meet the injury-in-fact requirement because Mr. Sparrow is unlikely to encounter the Monument in the future and because his only encounter with the Monument in the past was during a purposeful visit.

         1. Sparrow' ...

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