Religious Minorities

Fla. Town Council Member Undermines Secular Invocation

  Rob Boston

Government officials at all levels are expected to treat the people they serve with respect, no matter what religion those folks follow or if they follow none at all.

That’s the ideal, anyway. In real life, non-Christians and non-believers are all too often still treated with open disrespect by some officials. This is unacceptable and must stop.

An incident like this occurred recently in Oviedo, Fla., where a citizen who volunteered to deliver a secular invocation during a city council meeting was treated with disrespect. By way of some background, bear in mind that six years ago, the city adopted a policy that restricted invocations to city council members and staff. But the city council occasionally went beyond its own policy and invited local clergy to offer invocations. And – surprise! – they were almost always Christian.

The Central Florida Freethought Community got wind of this, and David Williamson, the group’s co-founder, requested permission to offer an invocation to the council, which was granted. Williamson delivered a secular invocation to the council last year, and that went off without a hitch.

Williamson was again permitted to present the invocation this year, on May 3. But this time, something unusual happened after Williamson delivered his invocation: As soon as Williamson finished speaking, council member Judith Dolores Smith leaned into her microphone and started reciting her own, highly sectarian prayer.

“I believe, Lord God, that you’re the king of the universe, and that there’s nothing new under the sun, and all of our problems cannot be solved by man,” Smith said. “We need your intervention. And I asked you tonight, Lord God, if you would give us wisdom you gave Moses who led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Give us wisdom to lead these citizens of Oviedo. And, Lord God, as you promised – your son promised when he left this world – that you would send the comforter, the Holy Spirit. I pray that you would send the Holy Spirit, Lord God, to heal this city. … I just thank you, Lord God, and I thank you and give you the honor, the glory and the praise. Amen.”

Smith clearly felt the need to “correct” Williamson’s secular invocation with an overtly religious statement. Imagine if she had acted to negate the statement of a Jewish, Muslim or Hindu speaker. There would have been an uproar. Yet the only sanction Smith faced was a mild rebuke from Mayor Megan Sladek, who reminded everyone of the need to be respectful.

The sad thing is, Williamson’s invocation was really good – you can read it here on the “Friendly Atheist” blog – and it got overshadowed by Smith’s antics. Williamson, who was the lead plaintiff in an Americans United-sponsored lawsuit that successfully ended a discriminatory invocation policy in Brevard County, Fla., last year, is a cool customer. He registered an objection with the council and then departed.

The religious landscape of our nation is changing. Growing numbers of Americans say they have no particular religion. For the first time in history, the number of Americans who belong to a house of worship has dipped below 50%. Government officials, from the city of Oviedo all the way up to the members of Congress in Washington, D.C., need to come to grips with this reality and acknowledge that pluralism, which includes the right to be wholly secular in your outlook, increasingly defines our nation – and that this isn’t a bad thing.

The first step is fairly obvious: Be respectful of everyone’s religious or non-religious beliefs and don’t behave like a jerk.  

Photo: David Williamson delivers invocation in Oviedo, Fla. Screenshot from YouTube. 

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