TAMPA — The City Council voted Thursday to affirm its policy of starting meetings with an invocation.
The action came after a stream of atheists implored the council to end the practice, saying it discriminates against them. The group has been making its case for months, and council members have largely remained silent on the issue.
The atheists came out Thursday in their largest numbers yet, with nearly 15 people in the council chambers to show their support.
"Many of you are running for re-election in 2010, and you may be worried about the political ramifications of voting to end these invocations," Jason Rodriguez told them. "Removing them does not mean that you're against prayer. It doesn't mean that. Instead it sends the message to us, the community, and your fellow council members that you are for individual freedom for everybody."
He suggested that the council replace the invocation with a moment of silence.
"This is your opportunity to kind of set a groundbreaking precedent for the state of Florida and perhaps even set a trend across the nation," he said.
Matt Cooper told the council that invocations given in the past few months that refer to God and "our father" discriminate against not just atheists, but religions that believe in mother/father gods or multiple deities.
"I call on this council to end divisive, government-sponsored prayer," he said.
Pastor Frank Williams earned applause when he told the council that it should ignore the atheists.
"If prayer bothers them so much, why don't they just get out of here?" said Williams of Paradise Missionary Baptist Church. "Jesus Christ died for our sins. Lord have mercy. Why don't you all get your act together?"
The atheists have pledged to come to every council meeting until the policy is changed.
"Wouldn't it be nice to be able to put an end to all this and go about the business of governing in these chambers? The power is in your hands," Ed Golly told the council.
The board, though, refused to budge.
Council member Joseph Caetano held up a dollar bill, pointing out that it reads: "In God We Trust."
Council Chairman Tom Scott, who is a preacher at 34th Street Church of God, said he respected the atheists' right to express their views the council.
"You do not have the right to disrupt council when we are doing the pledge," he said.
During that portion of the meeting, the atheists skip over the words "under God" and go directly to "indivisible, with liberty." That means people reciting the pledge are not speaking in unison.
Council member John Dingfelder suggested voting to affirm the council tradition of pre-meeting prayer.
"I'm comfortable with our current policy," he said.
The vote was 6-1, with council member Charlie Miranda dissenting. "I'm not going to vote for a political issue," he said, adding that he doesn't need to reaffirm something he's already doing. "I'm not playing this game. That's to both sides."
Council member Mary Mulhern voted in favor of the resolution, but said when she invites people to give the invocation, she will make sure to include an atheist.
After the vote, the atheists said their fight is not over.
"They are fooling themselves," said Rob Curry, executive director for Atheists of Florida, said of the vote. "It did not resolve the issue."
Trish Pike came from Pasco County to support the group.
"I wanted to see what my fellow atheists are having to deal with," she said. "It's horrible. There's a clear solution that's offered on the table that would suffice and that's a moment of silence."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.