Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Atheists have Pinellas Park in their sights as they contemplate lawsuit

A Bible, a gift from Kiwanians, sits by the mayor. “Pinellas Park is the only one, the only one, with a Bible up there,” said atheist Rob Curry.

LARA CERRI | Times (2006)

A Bible, a gift from Kiwanians, sits by the mayor. “Pinellas Park is the only one, the only one, with a Bible up there,” said atheist Rob Curry.

PINELLAS PARK — A widening battle over the meshing of religion with local government appears to be on the verge of a showdown that could put this city in the crosshairs.

"There will be a court case this summer," said Rob Curry, executive director of the Atheists of Florida. "Pinellas Park may possibly be a part of it. I can't say for sure. But it is a possibility."

Curry said the group is targeting mid-Florida communities where atheist residents have complained that they feel bullied or discriminated against because their local governments start meetings with prayers. Those residents say they are afraid that they will be subject to repercussions if they display their nonbelief and that the government should remain neutral and not pressure people to conform.

"This is something that truly impacts people's lives," Curry said.

Pinellas Park begins its meetings with Christian prayers and has a Bible on the dais by the mayor. The Bible, a gift from the Pinellas Park Kiwanis Club, has been sitting there since the mid 1970s when City Hall was built.

"Pinellas Park is the only one, the only one, with a Bible up there," Curry said.

The atheists have asked the council to stop the prayer and to remove the Bible from the council dais. Those requests have been ignored.

Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler said the Bible is "historical" but otherwise declined to comment about the situation, saying, "I'm just going on the advice of our attorneys right now. … We're not making any moves."

The two times the atheists have appeared at Pinellas Park council meetings, Christian speakers have urged council members to retain the prayer and the Bible.

Officials appeared more receptive to those views: Rather than telling audience members not to applaud speakers, as is his usual practice, Mischler allowed Christians to clap for each speaker. (The atheists did not applaud each other.) Assistant city attorney Regina Kardash and economic development specialist Chuck Webber, who were seated on the dais with the council, applauded at least one of the Christian speakers. Mischler made faces at Curry while he was speaking.

"I was so stunned by it," Curry said later. "It was just this expression of 'Oh, no, that can't be true. … How could anyone think that?' "

Mischler later said he was unaware he was making faces and that "maybe my nose itched or something. I don't know what I did."

It was also clear the city was prepared for trouble. Two days before the May 27 meeting, a Pinellas Park officer called Curry because of a rumor that hundreds of atheists would descend on Pinellas Park. The city had 11 officers at the meeting — more than half the usual citywide patrol of 19 to 21 officers.

But hundreds of atheists did not show, and the only time the police were called into action was when Pinellas Park resident Randy Heine made an obscene finger gesture to a Christian speaker who turned to him and said he would go to hell for being an atheist. City Manager Mike Gustafson ordered Heine from the council chamber. He and two officers confronted Heine in the hall outside, but allowed Heine to re-enter the meeting.

If the atheists do sue Pinellas Park and/or other cities, it's unclear who would win. The law is a "mixed bag," said James Fox, a professor of law at Stetson University College of Law.

"It's hard to know how the next case is going to come out," Fox said.

The courts are likely to look at many factors if called to decide whether Pinellas Park is violating the First Amendment, Fox said. Among those are whether there is evidence that the city endorses a particular religion and, in the case of the Bible, the purpose behind its display — whether it's religious or secular.

Reach Anne Lindberg at or (727) 893-8450.

Fast facts

Meet your

local atheist

The Atheists of Florida have scheduled an information session for politicians and members of the public to meet atheists, ask questions and begin a community discussion regarding religion and its role, if any, in government. The event is at 2 p.m. June 19 at the Pinellas Park Library, 7770 52nd St. N. For information, call (813) 902-2420 or go to

Atheists have Pinellas Park in their sights as they contemplate lawsuit 06/05/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 4, 2010 5:11pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Accused cardinal denies Australia sex abuse allegations, takes leave of absence


    ROME — One of the most senior Vatican officials to be charged with sexual offenses denied on Thursday the allegations levied against him by Australian police, saying he would take a leave of absence as one of Pope Francis' chief advisers to defend himself.

    Cardinal George Pell meets the media at the Vatican on Thursday. The Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney says Pell will return to Australia to fight sexual assault charges as soon as possible. [Associated Press]
  2. Tie vote blocks grant money for husband of Dade City mayor

    Local Government

    DADE CITY — Taking another shot at obtaining a Community Redevelopment Agency grant to improve his downtown building, the husband of Dade City Mayor Camille Hernandez was denied this week by a deadlocked board.

    Mayor Camille Hernandez recused herself but was asked to stay in the room.
  3. Lightning planning $6 million upgrade to practice facility


    Lightning owner Jeff Vinik will invest $6 million in upgrading the team's practice facility, the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon.

    The plan will create a brand new locker room and training facilities for the team, an 18,000 square foot addition.
  4. Deputies responding to car crash in Riverview find shooting victim inside


    RIVERVIEW — The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is investigating after deputies responding to a single-car crash late Wednesday discovered someone in the car had been shot, authorities said.

  5. Commentary: Ten years later, the iPhone owns us


    Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone in January, 2007, before an adoring congregation, in his signature "Sermon on the Mount" style. On June 29, it became available to the public. Ten years later, the phone has spread like Christianity. The device represents "the pinnacle product of all capitalism," as Brian Merchant …

    Apple is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the iPhone's release on June 29, 2007. [Associated Press]