It started Dec. 13 at a Cape Coral City Council meeting when Atheists of Florida members were told to either cover up the message on their shirts or leave the room. The shirts depict a U.S. flag over which the words “One nation indivisible” and “Atheists of Florida” are inscribed. Shirt backs say “Atheists of Florida.”
On Jan. 24, AoF President John Kieffer, who’s also an FFRF member, was thrown out of the meeting by two police officers for wearing the shirt and trying to speak during the public comment part of the meeting.
It was more than the shirt, Mayor John Sullivan told the Fort Myers News-Press. “They tried to impose their will on the world. If they keep on pushing, I will push really hard to bring pastors back in here for the invocations.”
The shirt flap started before the Dec. 13 meeting. AoF members attended to give input on a proposed prayer policy resolution. Councilman Marty McClain told Kieffer that religious and political shirts were barred by council policy and had to be removed or turned inside out. Kieffer responded that his attire simply identified a Florida nonprofit corporation and that he would not comply with the order.
During the mid-meeting break, Sullivan and City Manager Gary King reiterated the order. King said police would be called if necessary to enforce the demand.
Kieffer asked to see the policy, which wasn’t available. He responded that he would refuse to comply and would accept the consequences. A few minutes later, King said the shirts “should be OK.” Kieffer and four other atheists then addressed the council.
Sullivan introduced the shirt issue during the discussion, reading from the resolution that “during any meeting of the City Council no person shall display any banner, placard or sign that is personal, obscene, or profane.” Sullivan stated that he wanted to add “political” and “personal attire” to the rule. The resolution passed unchanged, with Sullivan casting the lone dissenting vote.
“When city officials mentioned to us that no political or religious message was permitted on our shirts, my immediate thought was that this was absurd, given their recent discussions about putting up the Ten Commandments in City Hall,” said Matthew Smith, an AoF and FFRF member.
As Kieffer started to speak from the podium to the council Jan. 24, Sullivan told him his attire was inappropriate, and the police led him away. “What do you find objectionable?” Kieffer asked. “How dare you!”
Earlier, when the meeting opened, the atheists stood with the rest of the citizens to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. It apparently irked some council members that the heathens skipped right past “under God” to “indivisible” and said it too loudly to suit the religionists. After a break in the meeting after the ejection, the council voted 6-2 to let Kieffer speak while wearing the same shirt.
“What happened this evening was somewhat unexpected. I’m appalled. I’m shocked,” Kieffer told the council. He noted his military service in Vietnam. “I did it for this country. I did it for the U.S. Constitution. You may not agree with my worldview, but we’re all Americans. We all have a right to our worldview. I do appreciate the council’s vote to let me come back in.”
One resident predicted the council members who voted to let Kieffer back in won’t be reelected.
Sullivan has also publicly expressed support for displaying the Ten Commandments in City Hall, which led to a Nov. 12 letter of complaint from FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott on behalf of Cape Coral-area Foundation members.
“Our laws were built on the Ten Commandments. It’s getting back to our core values,” Sullivan told the News-Press.
Elliott cited case law prohibiting governmental display of the Commandments and added, “The First Commandment alone makes it obvious why the Ten Commandments may not be posted by government bodies. The government of Cape Coral has no business telling citizens which god they must have, how many gods they must have, or that they must have any god at all.”
Sullivan got little support from the council at a later meeting in November and appears to have stopped pushing to have the Commandments in council chambers.