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Lakeland, not Pinellas Park, named in atheists' lawsuit

PINELLAS PARK — The Atheists of Florida, a group that has called on the City Council to stop using a Christian invocation at its meetings, has filed suit in federal court.

But its target is Lakeland, not Pinellas Park — at least for now.

In the suit, filed Monday in federal district court in Tampa, the atheists ask that the Lakeland City Commission's invocation be replaced with a moment of seated silence.

The atheists say this alternative would be more inclusive of the diverse religious world views held by meeting attendees and participants, including the views of the atheists themselves.

Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields has disregarded the atheists' requests and, in a letter to the group, said that the invocation has a "long history and will continue unless the City Commission decides it should be changed."

For a while, Pinellas Park was in the crosshairs of the group. The atheists attended two council meetings to ask that the council cease its traditional Christian invocation and remove the Bible from the dais in front of Mayor Bill Mischler. It has been there since the mid 1970s, when City Hall was built.

The group's leaders had announced that it planned to take a test case to the courts this summer and that the defendant would be Lakeland, Tampa or Pinellas Park. Pinellas Park was the only one of the three that had a Bible on the dais.

The atheists' suit against Lakeland was filed just four days after Pinellas Park held what could have been the first non-Christian invocation in the city's history. Dr. Ahmed Betrawi, the imam of the Islamic Society of Pinellas Park, gave the invocation in Arabic, then repeated it in English.

That might not be enough to keep Pinellas Park out of court, however. The city, said Atheists' president John Kieffer, has clearly stepped over the line keeping religion separate from government by keeping a Bible on the dais. Kieffer said the group will continue to monitor both Pinellas Park and Tampa.

In a prepared statement announcing the lawsuit, Kieffer said, "The prayer ritual conducted as part of city meetings unconstitutionally forces us to convey symbolic speech about our religious orientation, something that is none of the government's business."

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Lakeland, not Pinellas Park, named in atheists' lawsuit 07/13/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 13, 2010 4:28pm]
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