Lakeland City Council Finds Loophole to Allow for Religious Invocations

In Florida, the Lakeland City Council members can’t get enough prayer. They invite predominantly Christian people to deliver invocations and they see nothing wrong with this.

The Atheists of Florida filed a lawsuit (PDF) telling them to stop. They even suggested a compromise: Don’t pray, but we’ll accept a moment of silence.

What did the council do?

They refused to compromise. Instead, they adopted a resolution (PDF) that would let them continue to have the prayers… but it’d be before the “official” part of the meeting. Literally, minutes before. Like they could pray, say “Amen,” and then say, “Let’s begin the meeting.”

Read that resolution. It’s infuriating.

Jennifer Hancock summarizes it nicely:

They make it clear that they really want to pray before meetings. They then go to great lengths to explain why they think they have the right to pray as a government body. They then go on to say that the city commission will administer an invocation/opening prayer program that only religious clergy are eligible to participate in. But since the law forbids them to endorse any religious views, they are going to add a disclaimer to the agenda stating that they don’t endorse the views of the clergy doing the invoking on any particular day. And just in case the disclaimer that they aren’t endorsing the opening prayers that they just went to great lengths to justify as their right isn’t enough, they are going to do the opening prayers before the official start of the meeting and therefore take it off the “official” agenda (wink wink).

The Atheists of Florida say they’re “keeping their options open.” Seems like a pretty big loophole — one other cities will surely take advantage of — if Lakeland is allowed to do this.

I hope the atheists can find a way to fight back.

  • http://yetanotheratheist.net Yet Another Atheist

    There is no loophole when we have a clear-cut First Amendment of our Constitution. The absolute separation of church and state is the only reasonable means by which the religious part of it can be enforced.

  • Jon Peterson

    I would think that the occurrence of a group prayer on public grounds, organized by public officials gathered for the purpose of a public meeting is STILL pretty blatantly in violation of the very laws they’re trying to get around.

    To imply otherwise is (as your blockquote so perfectly finishes), merely a “(wink wink)”, as transparent as any of the other newsworthy “loopholes”. It shouldn’t have to be literally stated in the lawbooks that they’re the same thing, but if it is indeed necessary, then getting the legislation passed IS the course of action we need to take.

  • Deiloh

    I’d start making a habit of being five minutes late. Either that or I’d be happy to arrange a little talk at the same time the prayer is going on… maybe going over vacation slides. After all, it isn’t like the meeting has started so I don’t have to sit down and be quiet through it.

  • http://olfroth.blogspot.com Ol’Froth

    I’d loudly sacrifice a goat while they’re praying. Since it is before the meeting, they cannot claim that the meeting is being disrupted.

  • Patrick

    . . . or play a few tunes, loud enough for all to hear. Start it up just as the prayer does, and stop it at the precise second the prayer stops. Obnoxious, but sometimes that’s the only recourse.

  • Richard Wade

    The prayer will be held in a public building during regular business hours, so the City Council members who will be present will be on publicly-paid time, and it will be led by clergy invited by the City Council. It is still a clear and blatant endorsement of a specific religion by the city government. Saying “Oh this is unofficial, we haven’t started yet” doesn’t change any of that.

    I don’t think this is a “loophole” that will protect them. The Atheists of Florida should press their lawsuit forward.

  • Aaron

    This is a loophole like:
    “It’s not creationism, it Intelligent Design.”

  • Parse

    From the article,
    “Instead, the invocation will occur just prior to the start of the official meeting. Anyone who doesn’t want to participate can remain silent.”
    Who determines who will give the invocation? Who determines when the invocation will be given? Who will enforce the silence during that time period?

    Yeah, this’ll fly like a Thanksgiving turkey. It’s kinda impressive, though – the description sounds like it violates all three parts of the Lemon test.

  • Anna

    If something like this stands, it would mean that teachers in public schools could also lead their students in prayer, just as long as they do it five minutes before the school day officially starts.

  • http://secularshawshank.wordpress.com Andy

    These battles over public prayer are totally worth fighting. Every time this happens, secular groups should file suit.

  • Richard P.

    Just what you’d expect from christians.

  • Alex

    Hmm, most public facilities have event rules and regulations. I wonder what guidelines they have for the use of the council chambers? Maybe atheists can reserve the chambers for a meeting before or after the council meeting. Also I would think there would be some fees associated with the use of the facility. And if they are allowed to use the facility for praying and not pay a fee, that would be discrimination. Also if they don’t let groups use the chambers then that would be discrimination too.

  • Alex

    Anna said:

    If something like this stands, it would mean that teachers in public schools could also lead their students in prayer, just as long as they do it five minutes before the school day officially starts.

    This does happen. Have you ever heard of See You at the Pole?

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    Alex, yes, but those are voluntary gatherings held outside of the classroom, and the prayers are led by students, not teachers, AFAIK. It’s a different situation than having a teacher lead the entire class in prayer.

  • Siamang

    I’m totally okay with see you at the pole. I’m also okay with a teacher supervising a campus religious club, so long as all kids are allowed to participate, even kids of different beliefs.

    Pretty sure that’s all protected speech.

    I just don’t want the Government breaking the first amendment.

  • brent

    just keep your music playing, continue your conversation and answer your phone etc until the actual meeting starts then if the prayer isn’t part of the meeting.

    run up and down the hall shouting.

    if people are allowed to do ridiculous and intrusive things ‘before’ the meeting they’ll understand and won’t mind a little bit.

  • Dan W

    This attempt at finding a loophole won’t work because it still breaks the First Amendment of the Constitution.

  • Daniel

    They are more than welcome to have their unofficial prayer at a coffee shop down the street. Once they move it into the council chambers, they have a problem.

    That said, I would totally show up with a friend, sit on opposite sides of the room and “before” the meeting, yell back and forth about which side had the best acoustics. And possibly test said acoustics.

  • http://aboutkitty.blogspot.com/ Cat’s Staff

    This has been tried by city councils before. Having sectarian prayers ‘before the meeting’ doesn’t make it any more legal if it’s organized by the city and held in the same place.

  • Thomas

    Well during the prayer all the atheists have to do is start saying something like, “Since this is not an official part of the meeting I’d like to read a couple of paragraphs from [atheist themed book]” They can’t kick them out for disrupting proceedings, and all they’re really doing is having a private conversation in a room full of people… just like the Christians are doing.

  • Richard Wade

    Could good money be made in these lawsuits?

    These foolish incursions by small town councils should become a profitable cottage industry for local atheist groups and their lawyers. These backwoods Bible burgs won’t stop until it hurts their treasuries, and their constituents vote them out for making the town go broke. When enough have their coffers emptied, maybe then the word will finally spread that cleaning one’s rectum with the Constitution is going to cost.

  • jolly

    I would stand around with a bunch of friends, near the councilors and stand there and continue talking until the ‘official’ meeting starts. That’s while waiting for the lawsuit to proceed.

  • http://pinkydead.blogspot.com David McNerney

    “Anyone who doesn’t want to participate can remain silent.”

    Or not, presumably, as the whim takes them.

  • http://hoverFrog.wordpress.com hoverfrog

    In England we have no separation of church and state and are officially a Christian nation. Christian prayers before council meetings would be allowed. Schools are required by law to spend time each day on religious education.

    For some reason prayers before council meetings don’t tend to take place. It is an inappropriate use of time for paid staff. The required religious assembly in schools is always about the days school business and news and if you told a schoolkid that it was about Christianity they’d laugh at the idea.

    I understand that the First Amendment is there to protect both the church and the state from interference by the other but it seems that all it has done is polarized opinions so that some god botherers just want to break the law and make it a Christian state. Do you think that maybe the founding fathers made a mistake?

    I don’t know if the loophole is valid (I suspect that it isn’t) but it certainly goes against the spirit of the law. More than fighting this breech shouldn’t the Atheists of Florida be storing this information in order to combat the council members when they next stand for reelection.

  • Kimpatsu

    This is clearly an attempt to do an end run around the Constitution. Suing them should be a slam dunk for the atheists.

  • Parse

    @Richard Wade,
    If by good money, you mean $1 per plaintiff and lawyers fees.
    I’m not a lawyer, but my understanding is that suing for Constitutional violations is generally for nominal damages, when no real other damage has been done.

    That’s not to say that there’s no potential benefit from it – it depends on how good they are at the PR fight. Find other religious leaders in the area willing to join in the lawsuit as additional plaintiffs. Spin the story as “The prayer contingent is an oppressive minority who act counter to all of our beliefs,” so that it doesn’t get seen as “Look at the atheist meanies persecuting us for our faith!”

  • Revyloution

    I think it’s time for some civil disobedience then. If the meeting hasn’t started, then the non-praying types should treat it like the meeting hasn’t started. Chat about the weather, walk around the room, answer cellphone calls (stage a bit where at least 5 people get calls 5 mins before the meeting).

    If the meeting hasn’t started, there is no reason to stay in respectful silence.

  • Rob

    Fight fire with fire. Lets see how they like it if some (gasp) Muslims decide to bring their rugs and proceed to pray before said meeting starts. Something tells me they might have a problem with that. Or you could take a page out of Westboro’s Baptist playbook, (Fred Phelps and his evil spawn) go to the meeting and bait them into doing something that you can sue them for. Then maybe they’ll STFU and stop thumbing their nose at the Constitution.

  • http://aboutkitty.blogspot.com/ Cat’s Staff

    @hoverfrog:

    More than fighting this breech shouldn’t the Atheists of Florida be storing this information in order to combat the council members when they next stand for reelection.

    Why would that help? They are probably more likely to get reelected because of this and if atheists oppose them in any way, then they will be guaranteed victory. Even if they were sued and lost, they would probably still be reelected. Their constituents are not going to hold them accountable for this, that’s why the constitution needs to.

    Prayers at government functions are legal, as long as they are non-sectarian (they can mention a god, but they can’t mention Jesus or make reference to him in any way). If they bring in people who consistently pray in Jesus name, in the name of our lord, our savior, etc…then there is a case. BTW, I’m not saying I agree with the fact that there can be non-sectarian prayers, but as far as I know, that’s the latest ruling from the Supreme Court.

    My city stopped doing prayers a while back, but everyone should go to their city council meeting (or the equivalent) and start paying attention to this. Don’t just read the agenda on the website and think there are no prayers…they may be putting them before the official meeting and keeping it off the official agenda.

  • http://blog.appletonstudios.com David B. Appleton

    The part of all this (and by “this” I mean not only public prayers, but also posting the Ten Commandments & co. in and around governmental offices and all of the other intrusions of religion into government) is that they do not seem to recall the admonition of the very being they say they honor and worship. From the New Testament, Matthew 6:5-6 (KJV):

    And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

    But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

  • Aguz

    Of course they can’t accept the minute of silence because everyone needs to know they’re praying… EVERYONE. Otherwise God doesn’t listen.

  • Lalocura2012

    I don’t know the reason you are all angry, and cranky but Jesus loves you and in my opinion I believe that the prayer taking place before the meetings is such an amazing idea. BTW there are Athiest churches in San Francisco if you guys ever want to go. Christianity isn’t a religion it’s a relationship with God, however apparently being Athiest is a Religion so keep all the evolution non-sense out of my school!