Atheists sue city of Lakeland over council meeting prayers
www2.tbo.com – By JOSÃ‰ PATIÃ‘O GIRONA | The Tampa Tribune
Published: July 12, 2010
LAKELAND – The Atheists of Florida filed a federal lawsuit in Tampa on Monday afternoon asking the city of Lakeland to end its invocations before city council meetings.
The organization suggests in the lawsuit that the city could hold a moment of silence, in which those attending could remain seated. This would allow attendees to pray, while also providing relief to those not wanting to participate in the formal invocation.
“That way no one is uncomfortable,” said EllenBeth Wachs, director of the Lakeland chapter for the Atheists of Florida. “”It’s not government’s business to tell me what to do in my religious life.”
The organization said it spoke at city council hearings in the spring about this issue and two representatives had a private meeting with Mayor Gow Fields.
Wachs said the outspoken atheists have been met with resistance and some people have been condescending at the public meetings. In March, the group had a private meeting with Fields, who remained adamant that the invocation was going to continue, Wachs said.
“They are forcing us to symbolically speak against our will,” Wachs said. “And government shouldn’t put us in that position.”
Tim McCausland, city attorney for Lakeland, said he isn’t surprised the state’s atheist organization filed a lawsuit.
The group became vocal and members said they felt unwelcomed or targeted after taking a stand not to pray, McCausland said.
McCausland, however, disputes that assessment.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said McCausland, who hadn’t seen a copy of the lawsuit. “Our city commission has a very long track record of being open and respectful of people’s issues.”
He said the city sends out letters to churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious organizations asking for someone to voluntarily participate in the invocation.
Religious leaders who respond are placed on a rotation to lead the prayer at the city council meeting. The city doesn’t review or edit the prayers. The invocation has helped start the meetings since the 1940s or 1950s, McCausland said.
In the lawsuit, the Atheists of Florida contends that the people who are chosen have a bent toward Christianity and regularly invoke the name of Jesus Christ, which the organization believes is insensitive to other beliefs and inappropriate in government.
“This is a diverse country,” Wachs said. “There are people of faith and non faith. … Treat us equally. We are Americans, too. We have a civil rights issue that needs to be respected.”
McCausland said the lawsuit is just a part of running a government.
“We have no choice but to defend,” McCausland said. “That’s just the cost of doing business.”