LAKELAND — Police were called Monday night to keep the peace in a City Commission meeting after a confrontation erupted with a contingent of atheists.
Five members of the Tampa-based Atheists of Florida made it clear from the beginning of the meeting that they thought invoking God's name in pre-meeting prayers violates the principle of separation of church and state.
The temperature rose when more than one member of the group tried to speak during the public comment session.
Mayor Gow Fields, who said he didn't appreciate "rude, disruptive and disrespectful" people from outside the city "hijacking" city meetings, invoked a rule limiting organized groups to only one speaker.
Three people were allowed to speak in defense of the city, while only Lakeland atheists chapter director EllenBeth Wachs was allowed to speak with permission.
Fields said that had the atheists approached the commission as individuals and not a group, he would have allowed all of them to speak.
Members of the atheist group protested.
The meeting threatened to get out of hand when audience member Richard Geringswald loudly challenged the atheists.
He took a seat next to an atheist trying to be recognized by Fields and said they had no right to speak.
City Manager Doug Thomas had police summoned.
When authorities arrived, Fields banged his gavel and took a recess, ending the meeting.
Fields said he had met with some of the atheists last week in his office. "They wanted to twist things. They said they were going to sue, and they walked out," he said.
Wachs, the Lakeland chapter director, said the group plans to sue over issues of separation of church and state and free speech this month.
As commissioners exited the meeting room, John Kieffer, president of Atheists of Florida, berated them for not allowing public discourse.
"All of you should be ashamed," he said.