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 [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.