Council splits on atheist's invocation

In Tampa, three members walk out rather than listen. The mayor says the invocation should be reserved for believers in God.

Published July 30, 2004

TAMPA - The City Council's opening invocation is usually a quiet moment of peace.

People from all faiths bow heads to hear pastors, rabbis and even poets offer some inspiration.

But Thursday, three council members walked out rather than hear an invocation from a man who doesn't believe in God.

Council members Kevin White, Mary Alvarez and Rose Ferlita left their seats rather than listen to Michael R. Harvey, a member of Atheists of Florida who had been invited by council member John Dingfelder to offer the invocation.

Even before Harvey began to speak, White was pushing to cancel the invocation. These are sacred moments that refer to a supreme being, White said, and this speaker is an atheist.

"We have never had people of an atheist group represent Americans," White said. "And I don't think it is appropriate in this setting."

White's motion to cancel the invocation failed 2-4, supported only by him and Alvarez. She called White "very brave" for making the effort.

"I just can't sit here and listen to someone that does not believe in a supreme being," she said.

Ferlita voted to allow the invocation go on, but also walked out. "I think this is sending us in the wrong direction," Ferlita said.

Mayor Pam Iorio, who did not attend the council meeting, said later that the invocation should be reserved for speakers who invoke God. She would not say whether she would have walked out.

"I certainly don't agree with having an atheist come for the invocation," she said. "I think the invocation is a time for the council to start their day with an expression of faith."

Dingfelder said his invitation to Harvey started with a neighborhood talk. He often saw Ed Golly, president of Atheists of Florida, in South Tampa. Golly needled him that the invocation violated the separation of church and state.

"I agree you should have equal time," Dingfelder told him. "I'll set it up."

Usually, clergy members deliver the invocation. But poets, civic leaders and ordinary citizens have been invited to speak, too. Some are nondenominational; others mix politics with prayer. Some invoke Jesus, others are more meditative.

Dingfelder, who attends a Jewish synagogue, has also invited Baptist and Methodist preachers, as well as a chaplain from MacDill Air Force Base.

"I was honestly hoping it would not be a big deal," he said. "Obviously, I am a little naive about that."

He blamed the atheist group for stirring up attention.

"I think they went out of their way to make it a media circus," he said.

Harvey, however, said he had been fielding reporters' questions for days, ever since news of the invitation broke earlier this month. On Thursday morning, Dingfelder introduced Harvey without mentioning his membership in Atheists of Florida.

Then, White stepped in. White said he had heard news reports that Harvey planned to make a political statement. Harvey should make his speech during the audience portion of the meeting, he said, when people have three minutes to address the council.

"What you are proposing is a form of censorship," Dingfelder said. And he said he was not told in advance what Harvey planned to say.

"City Hall belongs to everybody - everybody - regardless of what they believe in or what they don't believe in," Dingfelder said, his face getting flushed. "Because that is what our nation was built on. And that is what our soldiers overseas are fighting for."

With the debate over, council vice chairman Shawn Harrison invited Harvey to begin. Harrison warned him not to make a political statement.

Harvey thanked the council, then spoke about the separation of church and state.

Harrison banged the gavel.

"Sir, you are out of order," he said. "This is a political statement."

"I would say what occurred before was more of a political statement," Harvey said.

Harrison warned Harvey again.

The three council members still in the room lowered their heads.

Harvey continued: "So rather than clasping your hands, bowing your heads and closing your eyes, open your arms to that which truly makes us strong - our diversity."

Later that day, Harvey said he expected controversy, but not the hostility he faced.

"They did not want an atheist to share in that symbolic gesture to participate in government at that level," Harvey said. "I think it disturbed them. I think they did not know how to act."

Harvey said he was particularly disappointed that White, Alvarez and Ferlita walked out, calling their actions "a discriminatory gesture." White is black, and Alvarez and Ferlita are both Hispanic women.

"I think it is terribly ironic that the (wrong) message was sent by three members of a minority group to another minority," Harvey said. "Knowing how far minorities have come, you would think this would be fresh in their minds."

Later, White agreed that he was taking a stand. Listening to an atheist even one time could unleash a "snowball effect" on government. He compared it to having unprotected sex.

By the afternoon, Dingfelder was sounding somber. Asked if he regretted the invitation, he paused.

"I don't know," he said.

He paused again. "No, I don't think so."

His political career will probably be hurt, he said.

"All I can tell you is I did this because I honestly believed it was the right thing to do."

David Karp can be reached at 813 226-3376 or karp@sptimes.com


This is the opening invocation delivered by Michael R. Harvey of Atheists of Florida at Thursday's meeting of the Tampa City Council:

An invocation is an appeal for guidance from a supernatural power, but it is not only that. It is also a call, a petition, to positive action on behalf of and for a diverse citizenry. On behalf of Atheists of Florida, I would like to express our gratitude in being invited to deliver today's invocation.

We are committed to the separation of state and church as defined by the United States Constitution. It is the core value of that remarkable and visionary document to protect the human-derived rights of all people in the continuous struggle for equal opportunities to pursue a safe and decent quality of life.

When an invocation takes on the form of public prayer, it is also a violation of the very principles upon which our country and Constitution were founded. Although we are dismayed that the practice of public prayer by governing bodies charged with representing all citizens still continues in violation of the Constitution, we also recognize that this practice has become deeply embedded in the national psyche.

Elected and appointed leaders who wish to seek the guidance of a deity can do so in private, as is their right. But not in the public arena where the establishment of religion is an assured end-result.

History - that ever-unfolding, ever-flowering story of human civilization - teaches us that the rights and accomplishments of humanity are the results of its past struggles, and that the road less traveled is many times the highest path to human progress. We therefore invoke this council and all of our leaders to be guided and inspired by the invaluable lessons of history, the honest insights of science, the guileless wisdom of logic, and the heart and soul of our shared humanity - compassion and tolerance.

So rather than clasping your hands, bowing your heads and closing your eyes, open your arms to that which truly makes us strong - our diversity. Raise your heads and open your eyes to recognize and fully understand the problems before you and know that ultimately, solutions to human problems can come only from human beings.

Thank you.