Government-Supported Religion

Some Officials In A Fla. Town Aren’t Interested In Hearing What An Atheist Has To Say

  Rob Boston

An atheist is scheduled to deliver the invocation tonight before a meeting of the Lake Wales, Fla., City Commission, and some people are not happy about that.

Sarah Ray of the Atheist Community of Polk County has delivered opening statements to the Polk County Board of County Commissioners without incident. But her plans to do the same in Lake Wales, a central Florida community of about 17,000, is running into opposition.

A local news site, the Lake Wales News, reported that Commissioner Al Goldstein demanded to know, “Who will she be praying to?” and said he plans to walk out of the room when Ray begins speaking. Another member, Curtis Gibson, said he might turn his back on Ray. Interim City Manager James Slaton said he planned to take the issue to the city attorney.

Six years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in Greece v. Galloway, a legal case sponsored by Americans United, allowed local governments to open meetings with prayers as long as a policy of non-discrimination was observed.

This means that local officials might on occasion hear invocations by Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans and, yes, nontheists. This should not be controversial. After all, Lake Wales undoubtedly has residents who follow all of these traditions and more. All deserve the right to speak to local government.

This issue of invocations has surfaced in other parts of Florida. In Brevard County, the Board of County Commissioners refused to allow anyone who did not belong to a mainstream, monotheistic religion to open board meetings. Americans United and its allies sued the board and won. The board subsequently agreed to a settlement prohibiting it from continuing its discriminatory practices and requiring the county to pay $60,000 in damages to the plaintiffs and $430,000 in attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

Lake Wales officials would do well to study this recent history and avoid repeating Brevard County’s costly mistake. They might also work on being more tolerant and open-minded. Assuming she is allowed to speak, Ray might have some interesting things to say tonight. Instead of walking out of the room or turning their backs, the commissioners ought to grant Ray the same measure of respect they’d give to someone delivering a religious message.

Who knows? They might learn something.

P.S. If you think your local public officials have a discriminatory invocation policy, let Americans United know about it. We might be able to help.


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