TAMPA — For the second City Council meeting in a row, people opposed to a pre-meeting prayer urged the council Thursday to do away with the practice.
Rob Curry, executive director of the nonprofit Atheists of Florida, was the first person to approach the podium during the public comment portion of the meeting. Council Chairman Tom Scott tried to keep him from speaking, saying the invocation wasn't on the agenda.
"If you want to silence atheists … " Curry began.
Scott, pastor at 34th Street Church of God, banged his gavel: "Sir, you are out of order."
City Council attorney Martin Shelby intervened, noting that the invocation was indeed on the agenda, though not as a legislative matter.
That prompted this observation from council member John Dingfelder: "On the front of the agenda it has the address of City Hall, but we wouldn't consider that an item on the agenda."
Shelby noted that public comment is open to any matter, but priority is given to agenda items.
Scott asked if anyone wanted to talk about on any item on the agenda.
When no one rose to speak, Curry took the floor, saying that roughly 10 percent of the population considers themselves atheists, and requiring people to rise and pray before government meetings discriminates against them.
"Please consider protecting atheists from discrimination, starting with something that is easy to fix, quick and harms no one. Simply replace the invocation, which is divisive, with a moment of silence or reflection," Curry said. "We're not against prayer, we're against the entanglement of religion and government."
His remarks were met with applause and Scott banged the gavel again.
"There will be no clapping," he said.
John Kieffer, president of Atheists of Florida, said since council members didn't seem to understand the points he made two weeks ago, he would try to put it in "more simple and generic terms."
"Believe it or not, there are people who believe in invisible aliens," he said. "Believers usually talk to these aliens mentally and silently, but sometimes in a standing ritual."
People who don't believe in the aliens and decline to rise, he said, stand out like a "ketchup stain on a white shirt."
"When you do the invisible alien standing ritual at your meetings, I don't know what to do. You see, I'm not a believer in invisible aliens," he said. "What should I do? Lie to fit in, or be the hated ketchup stain?"
Pastor Frank R. Williams defended the prayer practice.
"If it wasn't for prayer we wouldn't be here today. Thank God for Jesus Christ," he said. "I would tell you 'God bless you,' but you've got so many nonbelievers here. I'll pray for you."
The flap over prayer at City Council meetings started in September when the invited speaker ended his remarks with a request that the council be blessed in the "name of Jesus Christ."
That prompted council member Linda Saul-Sena, who is Jewish, to suggest that future speakers consult a brochure that describes how to deliver a public prayer without singling out any specific religion.
Two weeks ago, when the prayer opponents spoke, no City Council member responded.
"I want to apologize that no one said anything last time," council member Mary Mulhern said Thursday. "It's not that we're not listening or considering. It's just that it's a pretty big topic."
She said she has been talking to city attorneys about how to resolve the issue.
"I will make sure that this is addressed at some point by council," she said.
As he left City Hall, Curry said his group will come to every City Council meeting until the issue is resolved.
"I really appreciate and respect the time that Mary Mulhern took to address us today," he said. "She was thoughtful and considerate."
Just before the council broke for lunch, Mulhern made a motion for city attorneys to provide a report in two weeks on the constitutionality of prayer at meetings and options for changing the policy.
"On either end, there are problems with our procedure," she said. "There are some very religious people who won't give an invocation because they're not able to express their beliefs."
But with only three other board members present, Mulhern got no support. Council member Gwen Miller said she wanted to wait for the full board to consider the motion.
Dingfelder said the council's continued silence on the matter shows no one wants to change the policy.
"I'm comfortable with the process we have," he said. "We're very accommodating to priests, rabbis, ministers, nonbelievers, whatever."
Putting the matter on the agenda will simply "amp it up," and draw so many people that the meeting would probably have to be held at the Tampa Convention Center, he said.
"I'm not really sure that's the right direction for council," he said.
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.