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The City Commission held a moment of silence at its Monday meeting in honor of two British tourists who were killed Saturday, in Newtown. The commission’s normal weekly prayer followed.
Sarasota Thursday, Apr. 21, 2011 6 years ago

Belief System

by: Robin Roy City Editor

At every City Commission meeting, the city auditor and clerk starts the proceedings by reading a three-sentence prayer.

A national atheist group has cited that invocation as a possible violation of the separation of church and state.

American Humanist Association attorney William Burgess sent a letter April 12 to Mayor Kelly Kirschner and city attorney Robert Fournier, on behalf of an anonymous city resident, asking that the city stop its commission prayer, during which everyone in the room is asked to stand.

“By reciting and coercing others to join in its one particular kind of prayer, the city is infringing upon the rights of each individual to chose to worship — or not to worship at all — in his or her own way,” said Burgess.

Asking people to stand during the prayer, said Burgess, creates a hostile environment for some, because it becomes apparent who is not participating in the prayer.

According to the AHA, which monitors Constitutional violations, having the same government employee recite the prayer at each meeting gives the impression that the prayer is official and is government-sponsored.

At the April 18 commission meeting, Fournier briefed commissioners on his response to the AHA, which defended the prayer and asked the organization how it wanted to proceed.

He cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Marsh v. Chambers, to determine that the city’s invocation does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“If there is no credible evidence that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any religion, then the court doesn’t even want to look at the content of the prayer,” Fournier said. “So I think you’re OK.”

The commission decided not to eliminate the prayer or eliminate the request to stand during the prayer, but not before three citizens spoke on the issue — one in favor of prayer and two against it, including the citizen who initiated the conversation.

Jim Lampl, who sat on the city’s Charter Review Board, said the commission is there to do business for the people, not for a “heavenly father,” which refers to the first line in the city prayer.

“Somehow, we were able to do the job (on the Charter Review Board) without invoking religion,” he said.

Lampl told the Sarasota Observer after the meeting that he was the person who contacted the AHA.

He hopes the commission eventually will end the prayer or replace it with a moment of silence.

“I don’t want to be adversarial,” he said, “but I’m hoping (commissioners) see wisdom in omitting the invocation or having a moment of silence.”

Before the prayer at the Monday commission meeting, Kirschner called for a moment of silence to honor the British tourists who were fatally shot Saturday in Newtown.

Lampl said he will keep attending commission meetings but will now remain seated during the prayer and will soon ask commissioners to include a rotation of prayers from different religions.

He will also make his feelings known before the County Commission, which also includes a prayer at its meetings.

Four years ago, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State complained that on two occasions, the county Commission prayer mentioned Jesus’ name.

The county has since stopped allowing clergy to recite the prayer at its meetings. Now, county employees rotate leading the non-denominational invocation.

And this is not the first time the city has found itself at the center of a debate over the separation of church and state.

In 2005, Chabad of Sarasota placed a menorah at St. Armands Circle Park. Fournier did not believe that was a violation of the Establishment Clause because a private group, and not city government, was behind the display.

But in 2007, when Hope International Ministries wanted to place a bench at Island Park that read, “Sit here for healing, hope and salvation, in memory of Jesus Christ,” Fournier advised that the bench be rejected.

He believed a good argument could be made that the bench violated the Constitution, because the name “Jesus Christ” was mentioned, which made it appear the bench was promoting one religion, and because Hope International Ministries was donating $1,000 to the city in exchange for the bench, which gave the impression of a joint endeavor.

What is Humanism?
The American Humanist Association defines “humanism” as the ability to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity without theism.

Meeting Prayer
The following prayer is recited at the beginning of each meeting of the City Commission — the only city board or committee to include a prayer.
“Heavenly father, we affirm our faith in thee. We seek your divine strength, wisdom and guidance in the deliberations that affect the lives of each of the citizens of our community. In thy name we pray. Amen.”

Case-by-Case Basis
The stop-prayer request of the City Commission was not unique. Similar requests, some even resulting in lawsuits, are occurring all over Florida and the nation.

• Tampa

In 2004, three Tampa City Council members walked out of the meeting rather than hear an atheist, who was invited to provide his own invocation, speak.

And, on at least three occasions last year, the Atheists of Florida asked the Tampa City Council to stop reciting a prayer before its public meetings.

The council chairman, Tom Scott, is a pastor, and he tried to stop a group representative from speaking before the council.

But the council’s attorney overruled Scott and allowed the representative to speak.
The prayer continues.

• Lakeland
The Atheists of Florida sued the city of Lakeland last year to stop its pre-meeting prayers.

That lawsuit is still pending. A judge has thrown out the city’s motion to dismiss the suit.

• Pinellas Park

The Atheists of Florida asked the Pinellas Park City Council to replace the prayer with a moment of silence.

No council action has been taken.

• Yakima, Wash.

Under threat of a lawsuit from the group, Freedom from Religion Foundation, the Yakima City Council created a disclaimer before its public prayer that indicated participation was voluntary.

The suit is still under consideration.


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