TAMPA — Atheists came out in full force to the Tampa City Council meeting for National Prayer Day Thursday to repeat their pleas to end prayer at government meetings.
Atheists have been pressuring the council to stop its invocations for months. On Thursday, more than a dozen turned out wearing blue shirts adorned with heavenly clouds and the words: "Don't believe in God? You're not alone."
Their opportunities to speak during the morning's 30-minute public comment portion of the meeting were limited, though. The council gives preference to people addressing items on the agenda scheduled for discussion.
That didn't stop Rob Curry, executive director of Atheists of Florida.
He stepped up to the podium and said he wanted to talk about a proposed ordinance regulating digital billboards, set for debate later in the day. The atheists, he said, might be interested in using these billboards to share their message.
"If you want to pray, pray in your church. If you have to pray, pray in your closet like Jesus tells you to," Curry said. "Jesus says don't be one of these pious politicians who goes and prays to make a spectacle of himself."
Council chairman Tom Scott interrupted Curry, telling him to stay on the billboard topic.
"It is connected because these signs give us the opportunity to advertise," Curry said. "We value freedom of speech."
He pointed out that besides Thursday being National Day of Prayer, it is also National Day of Reason.
The meeting grew tense for a moment when Atheists of Florida president John Kieffer followed Curry at the podium.
Even before he started talking, Scott told Kieffer he needed to address agenda topics.
When Kieffer started questioning Scott, a police officer stepped to Kieffer's side. Kieffer stepped down.
Scott said he just wanted to stick to council rules.
"We are not trying to silence anyone who wants to speak," he said. The atheists could return, he said, when the council finishes the day's business.
The remarks during the council meeting came at the same time a National Prayer Day event was under way in a park across the street from City Hall.
Orthodox Rabbi Mendy Dubrowski, who delivered Thursday's City Council invocation, encouraged everyone in the room to honor the National Day of Prayer and pray for a rabbinical student who died in Tampa Sunday after a water scooter accident.
Dubrowski began his invocation, "God in heaven, master of the world," and told council members they hold "God-given" jobs to assure a "peaceful and moral society."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.