Governments – particularly those of the local variety – are supposed to be inclusive toward all citizens they serve. But some members of a Florida city council are clearly unaware of this responsibility, since they felt it was appropriate to walk out of a recent meeting right before an atheist was to deliver a message.

On Dec. 2, atheist Preston Smith was scheduled to give an official invocation before the Lake Worth City Commission. But as he made his way to the podium, Mayor Pam Triolo and three city commissioners got up and walked out.

It’s a shame they made that decision, because (ironically) they missed Smith’s thoughtful words on tolerance.

“In closing, let us above all love one another,” Smith said. “Not to obtain mythical rewards for ourselves now, hereafter or based on superstitious threats of eternal damnation. But rather, embrace secular-based principles of morality and do good for goodness sake.”    

But Triolo and the others weren’t interested in what Smith had to say. They’d already made up their minds that he intended to offend them. Triolo initially wouldn’t say why she walked out on Smith, but she told WPTV-TV West Palm Beach yesterday what motivated her intolerant action.

“I didn’t leave because Mr. Smith is an atheist, I left because of his alleged tweet,” she said.

Huh? According to WPTV, Smith allegedly sent a tweet some months ago that offered an interpretation of scripture that some might find offensive. We don’t know for sure, though, because Americans United hasn’t seen the tweet in question and Smith hasn’t confirmed that he wrote it.

Triolo said that she just assumed Smith would say something offensive, and she didn’t want to be around when he did it.

“Free speech works both ways,” Triolo said. “You can say what you want and I can choose to leave.”

Sorry Mayor Triolo – we’re not buying your explanation. Even if Smith said something offensive in the past, why does that automatically mean he can’t give an appropriate message at the meeting? And since he did just that, he clearly proved Triolo and the other commissioners wrong.

That’s why it seems pretty obvious that these lawmakers simply have a problem with atheists. They’re not interested in non-theistic points of view, and they made it clear that the Lake Worth City Commission has no respect for minority opinions and that atheists are not welcome at their meetings.

If Triolo was offended, she now knows exactly how many atheists feel when they’re forced to sit through a pre-meeting prayer that invokes God or Jesus. It’s offensive to them, which is why it’s best when meetings begin with nothing more than a moment of silence. Silence harms no one.

As for Triolo, she’d better get used to non-religious people opening city commission meetings. When the U.S. Supreme Court said in Greece v. Galloway that it’s fine for any government to open its meetings with sectarian prayers, it also said other viewpoints should be accommodated. That includes atheists.  

Perhaps Triolo and her cohorts could follow the example of the lone Lake Worth City commissioner who didn’t leave the room during Smith’s message.

“If we choose to have an invocation, we have a responsibility to respectfully listen,” Commissioner Christopher McVoy said. Walking out was “very un-American, and a slap in the face to the principles people fought very hard to make sure we had those rights,” he added.

McVoy is dead on. In the post-Greece world, Lake Worth City has options: either they allow a variety of viewpoints to be heard, or they open their meetings with a moment of silence (or start the meeting with no preliminary statements). If they can’t accept that, they will find themselves on the wrong side of court rulings and simple decency.