The Freedom From Religion Foundation has written to the Tavares City Council in Florida to complain, after it arranged a “corrective” Christian prayer to follow a Central Florida Freethought Community member’s secular invocation at a council meeting.
FFRF’s Central Florida Freethought Community Board Member Joseph Richardson was invited to deliver the opening invocation before the council on Feb. 7. Richardson delivered a respectful secular message of equality and diversity, encouraging members of the public and the City Council to reflect the wisdom of reason and empathy that binds all together. He asked that the council be guided by the principles of inclusivity, fairness and respect for the autonomy of every individual, and celebrated the city’s shared values transcending creed, culture and conviction.
However, immediately following the invocation, Mayor Bob Grenier directed Tavares’ Utilities Director Phil Clark to deliver a Christian prayer, explicitly asking that God “forgive us for our sins. … In Jesus Christ’s name.” The full text of the prayer reads:
Good afternoon, thank you for the privilege of allowing me to work with you all. And thank you for the honor of allowing me to pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You for this blessed and glorious day. Thank You for the folks we work for, thank You for the folks we work with. Thank You for the glorious city we live in. Thank You for all the blessings you bestow upon us. Please keep us on a righteous path. Please forgive us for our sins and bless those less fortunate. In Jesus Christ’s name. Amen.
Scheduling a Christian prayer after Richardson’s secular invocation is a discriminatory and unconstitutional practice.
“As Mayor Grenier’s conduct at the meeting demonstrated, prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes.
FFRF asserts that the best solution to the situation is to discontinue invocations altogether. City Council members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayer’s time. Citizens, including Tavares’ nonreligious citizens, are compelled to come before local government bodies like the City Council on important civic matters, to participate in critical decisions affecting their livelihoods, property, children and quality of life.
Prayers exclude the nearly 30 percent of adult Americans who are religiously unaffiliated, as well as, most often, the additional 6 percent of Americans adhering to non-Christian faiths. Prayers are coercive and intimidating when nonreligious citizens come to a public meeting and are 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 council members clearly do. If the board insists on continuing its unwise policy of hosting prayers at public meetings, it may not discriminate on the basis of religion against any person delivering an invocation. Secular invocations must be treated the same as Christian prayers. Treating an atheist or nonbeliever who delivers an invocation differently from a Christian citizen constitutes discrimination.
FFRF is urging the Tavares City Council to concentrate on civil matters and to leave religion to the private conscience of individuals by ending the practice of hosting prayers at meetings. As long as the council continues to invite citizens to deliver invocations to begin meetings, it must treat all invocations the same. The council should additionally apologize to Richardson and all non-Christian members of Tavares, and ensure that no “corrective” Christian prayers are offered after non-Christian invocations in the future.
“The United States is not a ‘Christian nation,’ Florida is not a ‘Christian state’ and Tavares is not a ‘Christian city,’” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Opening meetings this way is giving top priority to Christian dogma.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 2,000 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.