TAMPA — The hostilities started last fall, when a speaker ended his invocation by asking that the City Council be blessed in the "name of Jesus Christ."
Each time the atheist group has attended meetings, they have noticeably dropped the "under God" phrase while reciting the pledge.
Council attorney Marty Shelby told them Thursday to remain silent during that portion of the pledge if they find the words unacceptable. It's "disruptive" when they jump directly to the "with liberty" phrase, he said. Some have said it confuses others reciting the pledge.
Council member Joseph Caetano took it further, saying he was offended that some people refused to recite the pledge appropriately.
"If they can't, we have got to remove them," Caetano said, while council member Charlie Miranda cast a disapproving look. "I know how you feel, Mr. Miranda. That's not right. If they don't like it, they should keep their mouths shut."
Miranda noted that the council chambers are a public arena.
"You're living in a free country," Miranda said. "Let them do what they want."
Rob Curry, executive director of Atheists of Florida, was surprised by Shelby's comments.
"It's really a slap in the face for them to try to silence us by calling our sincere feelings disruptive," Curry said. "That's the way my parents learned (the pledge), my grandparents and my great-grandparents."
But Curry and his supporters have never raised the issue of the pledge, focusing solely on invocations that refer to a specific religion.
During the public comment portion of Thursday's council meeting, two people objected to the pre-meeting prayer.
Jason Rodriguez said a speaker two weeks ago thanked the council for continuing the practice, saying the United States was founded on biblical principles.
"If we were founded on biblical principles, we wouldn't have a democracy," Rodriguez said, adding that the Bible endorses slavery, subjugation of women, human sacrifice and the stoning of homosexuals, unruly children and nonbelievers.
The anti-prayer advocates have vowed to come to every City Council meeting until the issue is addressed. Council members have largely ignored them. Undeterred, Curry waited Thursday until the end of the council's regular agenda to talk.
He questioned why Shelby brought up the pledge issue.
Shelby said he made the remarks at the request of council members, but declined to say which ones.
Council member John Dingfelder said that while he respected Curry's right to recite the pledge as he chooses, it seems Curry and his backers pump up the volume as they skip the words "under God."
"We all got discombobulated in terms of our ability to complete the Pledge of Allegiance, a patriotic expression," he said.
Shelby added that council rules say that any audience member who makes a "disruptive sound or noise" can be ordered out of the council chambers.
Courts have often ruled that individuals can't use freedom of speech in a way that disrupts legitimate government activity, said William Kaplin, who teaches constitutional law at Stetson University College of Law.
If the Tampa debate made it to court, Kaplin said a judge would consider whether the atheists' language constituted speech and whether or not it was disruptive.
The atheists would have "a pretty darn good argument" if the council required everyone to stand up and recite the pledge, the law professor said. But if they have the right to not participate, that's a different story.
"So long as those options are available, then you could argue that they're not necessarily in a position where they just have to have their sensibilities be offended over and over again," Kaplin said.
Council member Mary Mulhern, the only board member who has expressed any interest in changing the prayer policy, said she notices Curry speaking a little more loudly during the "under God" portion of the pledge.
"I understand it, and it doesn't bother me," she said.
Curry and the Atheists of Florida aren't focusing their attention only on the city of Tampa. Group members asked the Lakeland City Commission on Monday to end their prayer practice, and have plans to target Pinellas Park, Clearwater, and other Pinellas County cities.
"We expect to be extremely active this year," he said.
Staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report