City Commission to Adopt Invocation Policy, Appoint Official Chaplain
Last updated 8/13/2020 at 10am
The city's unofficial chaplain, Dr. James Moyer, is likely to become the city's official chaplain Aug. 18, two weeks after a firestorm erupted when the Lake Wales city clerk invited a representative of the Atheist Community of Polk County to give the invocation to open the city commission meeting.
Since 2009, Moyer, a retired minister of higher education and chaplain for the Polk County Sheriff's Office, has been the primary person offering invocations at Lake Wales City Commission meetings. In his absence the mayor or a commissioner filled in.
City Clerk Jennifer Nanek said she didn't have a legal basis for denying atheist Sarah Ray the opportunity to give the invocation Aug. 4. An official city policy will provide that basis in the future.
City Attorney Chuck Galloway drafted a proposed resolution that would have put in place a system to invite Lake Wales area ministers to volunteer for a rotation to back up Moyer, but commissioners in a workshop session Aug. 12 said they preferred leaving things as they have been for more than 11 years. Galloway said he could draft a policy that he believed would hold up to a legal challenge.
Deputy Mayor Robin Gibson supported the current practice of commissioners asking the invocation in the absence of Dr. Moyer: "City commissioners are elected by the people. We don't get into the religious controversies by excluding some and including others. That just gets to be a morass."
Trying to defend a policy that rotated volunteer ministers would be "asking for unnecessary controversy," Gibson said. "This is all emotional sensitive stuff. Let's just make it simple like it has been or not do it all."
Mayor Eugene Fultz confirmed Moyer was willing to become official chaplain.
After the controversial invocation by Ray, several ministers and other people of faith criticized her and the city for allowing the invocation. Moyer, who said he watched the meeting online, followed up with a letter to the editor chastising the "faith leaders" for their remarks.
"Their words did not encourage the presenter to want to know more about Christ," Moyer wrote. "If anything, they reinforced why this person probably believes there is no God if that God is so hypocritically presented by His leaders.
"I also know that if I am to effect a change in someone, it's not by telling them how wrong they are, but by helping them to come to a realization that there is a faith way that supersedes the ways of a fallen world."
After the Aug. 4 meeting Ray emailed commissioners saying her invocation request was not meant to be "insidious or divisive."
"As stated in our organization's guiding Vision, we seek to live in a world 'where religious beliefs are no longer an excuse for bigotry and discrimination or given special treatment from the government.' As SCOTUS has affirmed, in invocations, we wish to see government either be inclusive of all viewpoints, change to a moment of silence, or simply have no invocation at all," Ray wrote, also sending commissioners a copy of the Davenport City Council invocation policy, which she described as "inclusive."
Commissioner Al Goldstein at the workshop tried to get clarification about how the decision to allow Ray to give the invocation was made and whether Mayor Eugene Fultz approved. He questioned Fultz's comment that he had been "blindsided" by the invocation.
"All of us were blindsided by this. I could not stop that person from speaking," Fultz responded. "I was notified ahead of you, probably a day or so. There was nothing you could do to stop that person from speaking unless you wanted litigation."
Fultz actually was notified in a July 24 email from the city clerk, a full week before commissioners received a link to the meeting agenda with mention that a "special guest" had volunteered to do the invocation. Fultz directed the city clerk in the future to notify all commissioners at the same time about upcoming issues.
The announcement that a self-described atheist and transgender woman would be delivering the invocation prompted heated comments on social media and about 30 people came to pray outside the city administration building while Ray spoke inside.
A subsequent VOICES column by Ray said for every 25 people, one will be an atheist, and a Sperling's Best Places report says 41.5 percent of Polk County residents are "religious." She said her organization seeks to raise awareness of nontheists living in Lake Wales, many who are afraid of people finding out.
Ray said her group also seeks "To share a differing worldview, so that our decision makers are better equipped to see more sides of the issues before them to address the needs of all – not solely from their own personal perspectives. To model positive atheism and humanism in civic engagement, working to correct the erroneous stereotypes and misconceptions that many have levied against us, simply for our lack of a god belief."