The nonbelieving community in Central Florida is asking Polk County commissioners to finally be civil and considerate toward freethinkers in their monthly meeting tomorrow.
Sarah Ray, director of Atheist Community of Polk County, was given the opportunity in May to deliver an invocation before the board. She offered a respectful secular message of equality and diversity, exhorting Polk County to embrace many traditions: “We are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Humanists, atheists, agnostics, unaffiliated, uncertain and so many others.” She concluded by saying: “There is one thing on which we all agree: We share the goal of making Polk County — our county — the best place it can be. And we unite here today around that noble aim and common purpose.”
In an uncalled for afterword, Polk County Commissioners’ Board Chair Rick Wilson followed her invocation by asking everyone to stand and bow their heads and then delivered a Christian prayer:
Father God, thank you for this day and for Your mercy and grace. We ask Your guidance and blessings on this meeting and our county. In Jesus’ name, amen.
This Tuesday, Oct. 5, David Williamson, director of the Central Florida Freethought Community, will again be delivering a secular invocation. Williamson needs to be treated with respect and the discriminatory conduct exhibited at the May 4 meeting shouldn’t recur, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Atheist Community of Polk County, Central Florida Freethought Community (a chapter of FFRF), and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are asking Polk County commissioners. If the board cannot treat invocation speakers equally, the practice of having an invocation needs to be eliminated entirely, they recommend.
“Citizens, including Polk County’s nonreligious citizens, are compelled to come before local government bodies like the board on important civic matters, to participate in critical decisions affecting their livelihoods, property, children and quality of life,” the letter states. “The prayers exclude the 22 percent of Polk County residents who are not religious. It is coercive and intimidating for these nonreligious citizens to come to a public meeting and be required either to make a public showing of their nonbelief or to show deference to a religious sentiment they do not believe in, but which their board members appear to endorse.”
If the board insists on continuing to host prayers at public meetings, it must not discriminate against any person delivering an invocation, the organizations demand. Secular invocations must be treated the same as Christian prayers, as the board’s policy acknowledges: “This policy is not intended, and shall not be implemented or construed in any way, to affiliate the board with, nor express the board’s preference for or against any faith or religious denomination.”
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which has jurisdiction over Florida — has condemned discrimination against minority beliefs in invocation practices. In Pelphrey v. Cobb County (2008), the court held that a county commission violated the Establishment Clause by removing Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons from a list that it used to select invocation speakers. And in Williamson v. Brevard County (2019), a case involving FFRF in which Williamson was the lead plaintiff, the court ruled that a county commission violated the Establishment Clause by discriminating in favor of mainstream, monotheistic religions in its invocation practice. After the case returned to the district court, the defendant county agreed to a settlement that prohibited it from continuing its discriminatory practices and required it to pay $490,000 in damages and attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs.
“My only expectation is that Chairman Wilson treats me the same way he would like me to treat him if our roles were reversed: with the dignity and respect deserved by anyone who comes to address the board or to offer an invocation,” Williamson remarks.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,700 members and the Central Florida Freethought Community chapter in Florida. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.
FFRF’s Strategic Response Team is a nimble squad that encapsulates FFRF’s two main purposes: to educate the public and keep state and church separate. It’s a bit of a renaissance team, but the usual work falls into four basic categories:
FFRF Attorney Andrew L. Seidel is the director of strategic response and runs the team. Ryan Jayne is the full-time SRT attorney and Mark Dann (working in D.C.) is Director of Governmental Affairs. The three make up the full-time core of the team.. Also providing support to SRT are FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, Director of Communications Amit Pal, Editorial Assistant Bailey Nachreiner-Mackesey and FFRF’s legal team, overseen by Legal Director Rebecca Markert.
By its nature, a lot of SRT’s work is behind the scenes. But please know that FFRF’s Strategic Response Team is fighting for you.
The U.S. Supreme Court today continued an ominous trend in agreeing to take an appeal regarding a demand that a Christian flag be flown over Boston City Hall.
The high court announced that it will hear the case, Shurtleff v. City of Boston, which will determine whether the city violated the free speech clause by refusing to fly a Christian group’s blatantly sectarian flag.
The organization, called Camp Constitution, had demanded that the city display the Christian flag, which features a blue rectangle in the corner with a blood-red Latin cross. This is the same flag that was paraded by Christian nationalists, intermingled with symbols of white supremacy, during the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, FFRF points out.
Today’s development signals there are at least four justices on the high court who disagree with the appeals court’s reasoning in the case, which held that flags on the city’s flagpoles constitute government speech. Therefore, the city is “entitled to select the views that it wants to express,” the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, quoting a 2009 Supreme Court case.
Boston’s City Hall has three flagpoles, one that flies the U.S. flag along with the POW/MIA flag, one that flies the Massachusetts flag and a third flagpole flying the city flag. Occasionally, another flag replaces the city flag with city approval for limited periods of time. The Supreme Court seems inclined to hand over that space for an obviously majoritarian religious display.
“The conservative justices who control the Supreme Court continue to take cases that advance Christian privilege,” warns FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert. “It is not clear why the court felt that this case merited a spot on the court’s limited docket.”
The composition of the plaintiffs’ team leaves much to be desired. Camp Constitution’s purpose is “to enhance understanding of the country’s Judeo-Christian moral heritage.” Liberty Counsel, which is representing the plaintiffs, is a Christian nationalist outfit that has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“The Supreme Court’s action today is frankly shocking and alarming,” comments FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Boston is not a Christian city, and the United States is not a Christian nation. Clearly no American city ought to fly a Christian flag at its seat of government.”
Gaylor notes that the high court’s recent troubling actions, including its failure to help Texas women exercise their constitutional right to abortion and its shadow docket rulings privileging religion, show why court correction and reform is crucial if civil liberties are to survive the Trump high court.
FFRF had previously joined a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the city’s position and it is considering filing a brief with the Supreme Court. The state/church watchdog will host its 44th annual convention in Boston this November.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.
One of the nation’s foremost writers, freethinkers and feminists is the guest on the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s “Freethought Matters” TV show this Sunday.
Katha Pollitt has been writing a National Magazine Award-winning column for The Nation since 1995. She’s the author of several books, including Atlantic Traveler (recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award), Subject to Debate, Virginity or Death!, Learning to Drive (adapted into a movie with Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley) and, most recently, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights. Pollitt, who has been honored by FFRF a number of times, is an atheist who has eloquently termed religion “a farrago of authoritarian nonsense, misogyny and humble pie — the eternal enemy of human happiness and freedom.” During the interview, Pollitt addresses the religious roots of the war against abortion, overpopulation and the plight of Afghan women.
“Being against abortion is connected to anti-feminism, which all these patriarchal religions are against,” Pollitt tells “Freethought Matters” co-hosts Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor. “And so the idea that a woman should be able to make up her mind about what happens in her body is not something that they are happy about.”
The episode will be airing in over a dozen cities on Sunday, Oct. 3. If you don’t live in the quarter-plus of the nation where the show broadcasts on Sunday, you can already catch the interview on the “Freethought Matters” playlist on FFRF’s YouTube channel. New shows go up every Thursday. You can also receive notifications when we post new episodes of “Freethought Matters” by subscribing to FFRF’s YouTube channel.
Coming shows this season include interviews with Professor Ryan Burge (a leading expert in the rise of the “Nones”) and journalist Charlotte Dennett, co-author of Thy Will Be Done: The Conquest of the Amazon: Nelson Rockefeller and Evangelism in the Age of Oil and author of The Crash of Flight 3804: A Lost Spy, A Daughter’s Quest, and the Deadly Politics of the Great Game for Oil.
“Freethought Matters” airs in:
“Freethought Matters” had an array of impressive guests last season. These included: pundit Eleanor Clift, actor and FFRF After-Life Member John de Lancie of “Star Trek” “Q” fame, Professor Steven Pinker, one of the most eminent global public intellectuals, and A.C. Grayling, a prominent British philosopher and the author of about 30 books, who grappled on the show with philosophy and the pandemic. The show launched its new season in early September with clips from the best past interviews on the program. Subsequently, it featured an interview with famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Two weeks ago, the show focused on a secular public education lawsuit that’s become a historic milestone, and last week it offered answers on how nonreligious people should deal with death.
Please tune in to “Freethought Matters” . . . because freethought matters.
P.S. Please tune in or record according to the times given above regardless of what is listed in your TV guide (it may be listed simply as “paid programming” or even be misidentified). To set up an automatic weekly recording, try taping manually by time or channel. And spread the word to freethinking friends, family or colleagues about a TV show, finally, that is dedicated to providing programming for freethinkers!
September 30, 2021
FFRF’s dynamic Congressional scoring system allows the public to see who are champions of the separation of state and church and the rights of nonbelievers. The scoring system uses real-time data to update scoring based on cosponsoring and voting on key pieces of legislation, and joining the Congressional Freethought Caucus.