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Speakers blast Tampa City Council over opening prayers

TAMPA — People who oppose starting government meetings with invocations pleaded with City Council members Thursday to end the practice.

"I'm not sure you realize how repugnant and degrading your opening prayers are for those of us without superstition," said Frank Prahl. "Why should you waste your time and insult people who don't believe as you do?"

He suggested starting meetings with simple words of inspiration, perhaps a short story or a poem.

Jason Rodriguez said the council doesn't need prayers to perform its duties.

"They belong in churches, not government meetings," he said, adding that the prayers violate separation of church and state principles and are a waste of time and taxpayer money.

His proposal? Begin meetings with a moment of silence.

John Kieffer, chairman of the nonprofit group Atheists of Florida, told the council that atheists who come to government meetings seeking a ruling on an issue feel pressure to either stand and bow their heads during the invocation, which contradicts their beliefs, or sit and be identified as a "religious outsider."

"I have experienced the disdain and contempt that some City Council members hold for atheists like me," he said, reminding them that a few years ago several council members walked out of the meeting when an atheist delivered the invocation.

Rob Curry, president of the Atheists of Florida, called it a civil rights issue.

"You're saying this is the way you're supposed to do it. If you don't, you're a second-class citizen," he said.

No council members responded to the anti-invocation speakers.

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.

It's a comment Saul-Sena has delivered from the dais often during her long tenure on the City Council. But it was the last straw for Jim Crew, an employee in the City Clerk's Office.

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

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

Snel alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the Tampa debate. That prompted a letter from the foundation calling for an end to the practice, and another from Atheists of Florida.

Saul-Sena invited Snel to deliver the invocation Thursday.

He kept religion out of his remarks, starting with "May we find inspiration in anything we deem holy."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink @sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Speakers blast Tampa City Council over opening prayers 01/21/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 21, 2010 11:59pm]
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