Three Tampa, Fla., city council members walked out of chambers recently rather than listen to an atheist give the invocation.

As Michael Harvey prepared to begin his remarks last Thursday, Councilman Kevin White called for a vote to find a different person to pray. Council member John Dinginfelder who invited Harvey reminded White that "I thank God every day that I live in a country that accepts everybody." When White failed to get the unanimous vote needed to halt the invocation, council members Mary Alvarez and Rose Ferlita joined him in leaving the room before Harvey could begin.

Dinginfelder had invited Harvey earlier that month believing that all should be given equal time. Dinginfelder, who attends a Jewish synagogue, has also invited Baptist and Methodist preachers, as well as a chaplain from MacDill Air Force Base.

The council had all known from previous press reports that Harvey would be delivering the invocation at the upcoming meeting. "Who is he going to pray to?" asked Alvarez when interviewed about the upcoming event. "It's a free country. .... Whatever floats your boat." Her tolerant attitude had changed by the time of the meeting.

"I [don't] have to sit here and listen to an atheist tell me what I should and shouldn't believe," Alvarez said after she walked out of the meeting.

This controversy highlights the problems of state-sanctioned invocations.

In Tampa, it wasn't until 1987 that non-Christians were invited to deliver the invocation. At that Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena noted that prayer givers were always "white male Baptists." Alternatives to prayer, such as moments of silence, are now regular practice.

However, the council show the limits of its tolerance by brazenly snubbing an atheist who had been invited to deliver the invocation. Defending the right of Harvey to speak, Saul-Sena observed that "Not all of us believe in the same way."

"Sometimes it makes some of us uncomfortable to name a particular deity."

Controversies like this can be easily avoided. Government bodies should leave prayer time to houses of worship and get on with the business of the people.