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Nonprofit group protests religious invocations at Tampa City Council

TAMPA — Inviting guests to give an invocation before City Council meetings is a long-standing tradition in Tampa.

The speakers are community members or religious leaders. Most are Christian, but some are Jewish, and one was an atheist.

Now a nonprofit group based in Wisconsin wants the pre-meeting prayers stopped.

"Government prayer is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive," Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote Mayor Pam Iorio and council members. Requiring people to rise and pray, she wrote, is coercive and embarrassing.

It happens at government meetings across the Tampa Bay area.

A board member does the honors at the Hillsborough County Commission. The St. Petersburg City Council allows invited guests or board members to deliver remarks, and sometimes they have a clear religious bent. Former council member Bill Foster, who is about to become mayor of St. Petersburg, often mentioned Jesus when giving the invocation.

The Tampa council prayer controversy has been simmering since Sept. 10, when the invited speaker ended his prayer 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 on how best to give a public prayer in a diverse society.

It's a comment Saul-Sena has delivered from the dais often during her long tenure on the City Council when speakers mention specific religious figures by name.

But it was the last straw for Jim Crew, an employee in the city clerk's office and recording secretary for the council.

In a two-page letter to council members, he said he's tired of seeing people invited to deliver the prayer publicly chided and humiliated.

Crew wrote that freedom of speech and religious expression means its "totally appropriate" for a Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist religious leader to offer a prayer reflecting his or her religion.

"I respectfully request that the practice of publicly admonishing speakers who choose not to offer generic invocations be discontinued," he wrote.

Alan Snel, a bicycling advocate and fixture at City Hall, then fired off his own letter to the council, defending Saul-Sena.

"It just reminds the council that we live in a very diverse city," Snel said in an interview. "If you do have the prayer, just make sure it's inclusive, reflecting the diversity and plurality of our community."

Snel alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the Tampa debate when he met members sponsoring a booth at a reading festival in October.

Gaylor said the past year has been busy for the organization established in the 1970s, with more than 20 letters going out to governments who incorporate prayer into meetings.

An attorney for the foundation said the group persuaded lawmakers in Kansas City to stop praying at meetings after objections to a routine recital of the Lord's Prayer. And the foundation takes responsibility for getting the Toledo City Council to switch from Christian prayer to secular remarks.

Elected officials, Gaylor said, take an oath to uphold a secular constitution.

"They should pray on their own time," she said. "If you have to go to your city council for a liquor license or sewers or a variance or a sidewalk repair, why should there be prayer involved? There's no need to invoke a deity."

Gaylor said just asking the audience to rise for the prayer amounts to coercion.

"If you don't rise, you're stigmatized," she said.

At the very least, Gaylor said, Tampa should switch to a moment of silence.

Saul-Sena takes a more moderate approach to prayer in the council chambers, declining to call for their elimination altogether.

"If we have prayers, then they need to reflect the diversity of the community and they should be appropriate for public gatherings," she said.

Saul-Sena invited Snel to deliver the invocation Jan. 15.

He said when he makes his remarks, he won't specifically mention the surrounding debate.

"It will not mention any religion or religious leader by name," he said. "I can guarantee that."

Times staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Nonprofit group protests religious invocations at Tampa City Council 12/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 12:13am]
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