A decade ago, three members walked out rather than stay in the room while an atheist gave the invocation to open a Tampa City Council meeting.
About three years ago, Pinellas Park officials refused requests from a local atheist who wanted to give the invocation at their council meeting.
So when Joe Reinhardt stepped to the lectern at the Largo City Commission meeting on Tuesday to become the first atheist to give an invocation during a government meeting in Pinellas County, it was hard to know what the reaction might be.
There was none.
The moment passed quietly and without comment from the commission or the audience. Largo officials say there has been no pushback since.
"I think it shows the maturity of our community that tolerance has grown so much from the previous attempt we have made," said Judy Adkins, president of Atheists of Florida. Reinhardt is a member of that group.
Bolstered by a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, the group has asked eight municipalities in Pinellas and Hillsborough for a chance to perform the invocation. They plan to approach all governments in Pinellas and Hillsborough, Adkins said. The case supported the right of Greece, N.Y., to hold an invocation. In the ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy said opportunities to lead invocations must extend to "a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist."
Three of the eight cities have agreed to let the atheists give an invocation. Largo was the first. Clearwater has scheduled an atheist to open a meeting this month; St. Petersburg, in September.
"I don't see it being a big problem for us," Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne said. Clearwater, he said, has had invocations given by people as diverse as an imam and a Scientologist.
Kevin King, chief of staff for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, sent Adkins an email, saying, "We pride ourselves on being a welcoming and diverse community where the sun shines on everyone. As such, Mayor Kriseman would welcome a periodic secular invocation."
The atheists might find a rocky path as they approach other cities. Pinellas Park, for one, has been steadfast in ignoring atheists' requests to remove a Bible from the council lectern, to stop saying a prayer to open meetings and to give the invocation.
"I think that our position has been fairly clearly stated in the past. I have no indication that the council is willing to try new things," Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said. "Our policy is generally that we welcome any denomination. But it has to be someone who is ordained or recognized as a representative of that religion."
Largo Mayor Pat Gerard okayed the secular invocation at least in part because research shows atheists are a growing percentage of the population. Gerard didn't know what to expect — after all, to whom do you pray if you don't believe in a supreme being?
What they got was a moment of silence, which Reinhardt said the atheists have long advocated as an alternative. They also got a short commentary on the 2004 incident in Tampa when three council members left the room rather than stay for an invocation given by an atheist.
"Happily, based on today's reception, it looks as if we are making progress towards a more compassionate, all-inclusive world view," Reinhardt said.
Then, before ceding his time to the moment of silence, he said, "I wish to invoke you to remember that human beings are the solution to human problems. It is our responsibility to the best of our abilities to make the world and leave the world a better place. No one else can do it."
Contact Anne Lindberg at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450. Follow @alindbergtimes.