2nd group asks Tampa City Council to halt invocations
TAMPA - Another group is calling on the Tampa City Council to abolish its decades-old tradition of opening public meetings with prayer. The nonprofit group Atheists of Florida wants the city to halt the pre-meeting invocations, arguing that council members are violating the Constitution by sanctioning the practice. "Government officials have no legal authority to decide that one way of expressing religious feelings is better or more tasteful than another," Rob Curry, the organization's president, wrote in a letter delivered to Mayor Pam Iorio and city council members on Tuesday. As an alternative, the group suggests a "moment of reflection" before council meetings."A moment of reflection does not subvert any faith, does not demean anyone's intellect, does not single anyone out, and does not tempt city officials to censor speech by making up rules to establish how the government wants us to pray," Curry wrote in the letter. The group did not threaten legal or other action if the council does not change its practice. City officials had no immediate comment on the letter. Two weeks ago, the Freedom From Religion Foundation made a similar request to city council members, blasting the practice in a letter to Iorio and council members. "Government prayer is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive," wrote Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation. "Calling upon council members to rise and pray, even silently, is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular government." The nonprofit foundation - which has chapters in several states, including Florida, and claims to have more than 14,000 members across the country - has sent out about two dozen similar letters about public prayer in the past year and has threatened lawsuits. Meanwhile, the conservative Christian legal group Liberty Counsel is vowing to defend the council practice and has pledged to provide legal representation to the city, free of change, if organizations opposed to public prayer file litigation to stop the invocations. "Prayer offered before public meetings is constitutional, so long as the government does not direct prayers to contain certain content," the group's attorney David Corry wrote. Council members have defended the practice, which dates back decades to when the council began inviting local clergy to open weekly meetings at City Hall with prayer. Public prayer has been a battlefield for years. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1983 affirmed the right of legislative bodies to host prayers before conducting business, but more recent court opinions require that these prayers be nonsectarian. For example, a reference to Jesus, according to one recent decision, violates the First Amendment. Tampa council members take turns choosing someone, usually a minister or rabbi, to deliver what is supposed to be a nondenominational prayer at their weekly meetings. In recent years, alternatives such as a moment of silence have been substituted. Tampa poet laureate James Tokley has used prose instead of prayer at invocations. But in 2004, when a member of Atheists of Florida was invited to give the invocation at a city council meeting, several then-council members stormed out of the room in protest. "Not everyone prays. For those who do, prayer is a personal dictate of conscience," Curry wrote in his letter. "It must not become a government power where politically correct language is imposed on religious minorities by an aggressive majority."
Reporter Christian M. Wade can be reached at (813) 259-7679.