Commissioners Unhappy Atheist to Give Invocation at Aug. 4 Meeting
Last updated 8/4/2020 at 9:08am
Some Lake Wales city commissioners are not happy with the "special guest" Lake Wales City Clerk Jennifer Nanek announced would be praying at their Tuesday, Aug. 4 meeting. With the link to the commission agenda, Nanek said Sarah Ray with the Atheist Community of Polk County had volunteered to give the invocation.
"Who will she be praying to?" asked Commissioner Al Goldstein, who said he plans to set his Bible on the dais and exit the room when Ray speaks. "The word invocation is what's throwing me. I still don't understand how it can be an invocation if she doesn't believe in God."
Commissioner Curtis Gibson said he likely will join the meeting online but may turn his back on Ray, noting "I don't just let anyone pray over me."
Nanek said she had no basis for denying the request by Ray, who she said "regularly gives the invocation at BOCC (Board of County Commission) meetings."
"I for one will find it interesting to see what she says," Nanek responded, when asked about placing Ray on the agenda.
Interim City Manager James Slaton said he would be talking more about the issue to City Attorney Chuck Galloway, but that it appears that a recent federal appeals court ruling against the Brevard County Commission may give the city no choice.
The Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals July 6 unanimously ruled that the Brevard County Commission policy of using religious beliefs to determine who can offer invocations at public meetings is unconstitutional, discriminatory and a violation of religious freedom.
"To be clear, the constitutional problem is not that the commission lacked a formal, written policy or that the selection of speakers was left to the discretion of individual commissioners," the ruling said. "The issue lies in how the commissioners exercised their discretion in practice. Brevard County's haphazard selection process categorically excludes certain faiths - some monotheistic and apparently all polytheistic ones -based on their belief systems. Most commissioners do not appear to have employed belief-neutral criteria in selecting which invocation-givers to invite."
Brevard County commissioners allowed various ministers and rabbis to do their invocations but denied atheists or non-theists the opportunity, thus opening up to claims of discrimination.
The Lake Wales City Commission in the past has restricted its invocations to city chaplain Dr. James Moyer, or in his absence, the mayor or a commissioner. Moyer did the invocation in 24 of the last 38 meetings.
"I don't know why all of a sudden the city clerk would decide to change our policy and just open it up to anyone who volunteered," Gibson said. "Since we've basically kept our invocations in-house, I don't know how we could be accused of discriminating."
Gibson and Goldstein pointed out that any person can speak on any topic for five minutes during the communications and petitions portion of the agenda, so the commission is protecting people's First Amendment rights.
Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson said it's worth pointing out that the City has done its best to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court standards for separation of church and state. He noted the invocation occurs prior to the time the meeting is called to order for official business.
"Once the meeting is called to order, there should be no intrusion by any city official on behalf of any one of the many religions - or non-religions - in the community we represent," the deputy mayor said. "Dr. Moyer is our chaplain, and renders an important service to our Commission prior to official business similar to the service provided to Congress by its chaplain."
A Haines City resident and co-founder of Atheist Community of Polk County, Ray most recently did a secular invocation at the May 5 Polk Board of County Commission meeting. The group's website at polkatheists.org says "Sarah is an atheist transgender woman living in Polk County, Florida. On seeing a need for a robust secular community in a highly religious area, she and her wife set out to create ACPC."