City Council members Tuesday night voted against sponsoring a "Freedom Festival" that would have celebrated First Amendment freedoms, especially freedom of religion, in December. In a 3-to-2 vote, council members concluded that although the name of the event had been changed from "Faith Festival" to "Freedom Festival" the perception that it would have been a religious event could not have been overcome.
"I feel it has already been established that the city is going to sponsor this event," said council member Debra Prewitt.
Mayor Peter Altman, who originally proposed holding the festival, was disappointed with the vote.
"What it boils down to is that some of us are afraid to stand up and say we're Americans," Altman said. "That is what it's all about."
Altman got the idea for the festival after watching the Berlin Wall tumble and the political and social upheavals in Eastern Europe. U. S. citizens have so many freedoms they take for granted. It's time that they were celebrated, he said.
"The more we let them sit there, the less we understand about them and the more likely they are to disappear," Altman said.
But the perception that a municipal government would have been sponsoring a religious event already existed, said Al Brown, a director of the African-American Atheists Society.
Brown said "even though the festival is open to organizations of various types, we are concerned . . . that you remain secular and stay out of religion."
The idea would not have been to promote religion, but to bring people together, said Jose Pascua, president of the Joshua Generation, an international Christian organization. In addition to promoting First Amendment freedoms, the festival also would have gathered food and other necessities for the needy.
The celebration would have been open to all people, from all beliefs, Altman said. For six weeks, he has contacted various religious groups _ Jewish, Christian and Wiccan _ to participate in the festival. Founded in pre-Christian times, Wicca is the worship of the forces of nature and a mother-goddess.
The event would have been particularly appropriate now that the threat to First Amendment Rights has become more pronounced, Altman said. Citing controversial subjects such as Robert Mapplethorpe's photos, 2 Live Crew's music and Sarasota's ban on thong bathing suits, Altman sees the moral ideas of a few infringing on the lives of many. The festival would be a reminder to people of what the Constitution guarantees.
"What I am trying to do is focus us back on the Constitution and that it is good to be different," Altman said.
In other action, City Council members agreed to increase utility rates 32 percent for city water customers.
The increase would help the city pay for expansion and improvement at its waste-water treatment plant.
This means a typical city water customer using between 5,000 and 6,000 gallons of water a month would pay $7.70 for water services and $7.30 for sewer services. Under the old system, the resident would have paid $7.10 a month for water and $4.25 a month to treat waste water.