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Daniel Ruth

Tampa City Council keeps praying, but little is transformed

Let us pray. Lord, please give your humble writer the strength to carry on to the end of this column. Please, in your infinite wisdom, smite the dangling participle, curse the split infinitive, hurl into damnation your servant's unnatural inclination toward too many commas.


We love to pray in this country. Baseball players at the plate often cross themselves more times than St. Francis of Assisi surrounded by a menagerie of God's creatures. Hucksters on the hustings can't invoke their faith often enough — even right up to the moment the cell door locks behind them.

The cable lineup is loaded with well-coiffed hell-fire and brimstone thumpers raising the dead, curing bunions and converting the wayward while waving one hand and passing the basket with the other.

God makes for good business and even better politics.

Some people find this annoying, especially when public bodies, like the Tampa City Council, begin their deliberations by engaging in mini-novenas, imploring the Almighty to help guide their decisions with goodwill and decency just before voting on a liquor zoning application.

I don't mean to be, uh, insensitive here, but don't you think in a world filled with pain and suffering and natural disasters and war and genocide and bigotry and disease, God has other things on his or her plate than whether Spike's House of Coo-Coo-Ca-Choo can serve hootch in Ybor City?

In recent weeks a group of atheists have started to attend the weekly Tampa City Council revival to protest the deliverance of an invocation, as well as the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, which, of course, includes the words "… one nation under God."

The anti-prayer/anti-pledge/anti-whattyagot crowd seems hell-bent (sorry) on persuading council members to knock off all this supplicating on the grounds that mentioning God in the pledge and calling upon ministers to deliver a brief homily constitute a violation of the tradition of the separation of church and state.

In theory, at least, the clerics called upon to deliver the opening council prayer are supposed to keep their hosannas as ecumenical as possible, although on occasion the chosen ones to lead the prayer have gotten a bit lathered up and started invoking "Jesus Christ" in the wording, thus really wadding the atheists and presumably any Jews, Buddhists, Muslims or any other member of a non-Christian-based faith in the audience.

Things reached something of a theological crescendo a week or so ago when the atheists (fun group) refused to utter the "one nation under God" part of the pledge, which not only threw everybody's rhythm off, but royally flummoxed council member Joe Caetano, who is quickly becoming the Torquemada of Kennedy Boulevard.

Caetano threatened to remove anyone who didn't follow the pledge wording precisely, only to be reminded by council colleague Charlie Miranda that in the United States (which includes Tampa), citizens have every right to say (or not say) what they want, especially in a public venue such as City Council chambers.

It's worth noting that despite all the indignant huffing and puffing over the mentioning of God in the pledge and the invocation kerfuffle, there's been precious little talk about legal challenges to mentioning you know who during a public proceeding. And that's because in all probability the atheists would lose by biblical proportions.

Over the years there have been all manner of lawsuits regarding expressions of God in public places – Christmas creche debates, Ten Commandments displays, the inclusion of "In God We Trust" on our currency.

But when it comes to opening prayers, it seems a 1983 case out of Nebraska, Marsh vs. Chambers, would side with the supporters of the Tampa City Council invocation. In this instance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled if the opening prayer before a legislative session is part of a long established practice and tradition, you can fire up the votive candles.

And since the Tampa City Council has been praying since Jose Marti was in knickers, it would seem they can continue to entreat away.

Still, for the sake of common sense, not to mention good manners, it would be nice if some of these ministers showing up to deliver the invocation could refrain from turning the prayer into an Elmer Gantry moment. We live in a society of vastly different faiths and, indeed, of no faith at all.

So it might be a good idea to leave all the mentioning of Jesus to the Sunday pulpit.

It might be even more pragmatic to merely have a moment of silence instead of turning City Council into something out a Promise Keepers rally.

After all, for all the praying, all the breast-beating, all the Hallelujahs, what good has any of it accomplished? The Tampa City Council is still the Tampa City Council, which as miracles go is like turning water into water.

Tampa City Council keeps praying, but little is transformed 03/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 15, 2010 4:10pm]
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