Invocation invokes brimstone

Angry e-mails beset City Hall the day after an atheist opened a City Council meeting.

Published July 31, 2004

TAMPA - When City Council member John Dingfelder invited an atheist to give the invocation at this week's council meeting, he said he did not intend to cause a stir.

"I was honestly hoping it would not be a big deal," he said.

As it turned out, he was wrong.

On Friday, the phone lines at the council offices lit up. E-mails poured through the city's Web site.

The day before, three of the six council members walked out rather than listen to an invocation from someone who does not believe in God. Even before atheist Michael Harvey began, council member Kevin White moved to cancel the invocation.

When his motion failed 2-4, White and council members Mary Alvarez and Rose Ferlita left.

The invocation that followed their exit unleased a torrent of emotion.

"You have just lost any chance of getting my vote a second time," one woman wrote Dingfelder. "I also believe there is good in every soul, but I would not invite a rapist or thief to my home for dinner to prove it."

Harvey, the atheist, said people came up to him all day Friday to congratulate him. That wasn't the case for Ed Golly, chairman of Atheists of Florida. Someone left a profane-laced message on his answering machine at home.

"You need to be exterminated," the caller said.

Experts said the outpouring was predictable.

"Any time you talk about that which is close to the heart - that is, religion and family - all of these things provoke more heat than light," said James Strange, a religious studies professor at the University of South Florida.

Dingfelder did not return calls for comment. His cell phone was not accepting messages - it was full.

The council's custom of opening a meeting with an invocation began so long ago, no one reached Friday could remember when. This isn't the first time that an invocation has offended.

In the 1980s, Sandy Freedman, then a council member, objected that only members of a ministerial association could offer prayers. The association had no black ministers, and no one from other faiths.

Freedman asked the council chairman if the prayers could be ecumenical. "He would tell me that he can't pray unless it is in Christ's name," she said.

Later, council member Linda Saul-Sena changed the policy so that a different council member could select the clergy every two months. Council members have invited poets, community leaders and others. One speaker read from writings of Anne Frank, a girl who kept a diary while her family hid from the Nazis for 25 months.

Since January, the invocations have included the word "Jesus" four times.

In May, Gary Schnable, pastor of Word of Life Foursquare Church, gave the invocation. He thanked God for enlightening people about "innocent lives killed in the womb" and "alternative lifestyles." No one objected or ruled him out of order.

Most other government agencies begin with a prayer. The Legislature opens with a prayer, although they don't pray at committee meetings. Both houses of Congress have chaplains.

In Pinellas Park, the City Council prays and keeps a Bible on the dais next to mayor's nameplate.

Other agencies such as Tampa Bay Water, the Hillsborough Aviation Authority and the Pasco County School Board do not pray. Last year, the Pasco County Commission dropped a prayer that referred to "Heavenly Father" and Jesus. Instead, they use a general invocation that starts, "O, Merciful Creator."

Opponents say prayer at government meetings violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, which says the government should not pass laws that establish a religion. But the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983 ruled that the prayers do not violate the separation between church and state. The court noted that the authors of the First Amendment authorized Congress to hire chaplains in 1789, three days after agreeing to the language in the Bill of Rights.

Allowing prayer at a government meeting does not amount to establishing an official religion for the nation, the court ruled. Since then, appeals courts have held that governments must open invocations to a wide range of viewpoints.

This week's controversy caused some to argue that the council should eliminate the invocation, if members will not listen to unpopular invocations.

Roy Kaplan, executive director of the National Conference on Community and Justice, said one way to deal with the demands of diverse religious opinion would be to switch to a moment of silence for reflection before beginning the meeting.

"The point is prayer is a private thing, not a public thing," said Kaplan, whose organization distributes a pamphlet on how to offer inclusive public prayers. "Having people come in and pray in a sectarian way is offensive to many people."

Others said that if the council has a prayer, it should be willing to hear speakers of different faiths - even those inspired by reason and science.

"I would hope that our public officials would be more civil to the public. Lord knows, we have to sit through a lot of things we don't like to hear from them," said lawyer Rochelle Reback.

"The people who walked out probably know for the very first time in their lives what it is like to be preached to," said Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister and executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

The invocation had plenty of defenders, however.

"I would have walked out too," said Christopher Gould Sr., general manager of a Christian radio station, WTBN AM 570 and 910 FM.

"I think there is a constant chipping away at our institutions," he said. "To allow an atheist the opportunity for an invocation lowers the standards of what an invocation is."


City Council members got a flood of calls and e-mails about Thursday's meeting. Council members Kevin White, Mary Alvarez and Rose Ferlita walked out rather than hear an atheist give the invocation. Here's a sample of the public sentiment expressed in those messages:

"I don't know if anyone on your council professes to be a Christian or even believe in God, but if you did not protest this decision or walk out, you will stand before God one day and answer for blaspheming his name."

* * *

"The behavior of White, Alvarez and Ferlita is typical of hateful Christians. What they can't understand, they fear. Why are these people on the City Council? And what's up with White's statement (that) listening to an atheist even one time could unleash a "snowball effect' on government? He compared it to having unprotected sex. Very twisted thinking. I'm not even sure you could call that thinking."

* * *

"I sent an e-mail to the mayor, asking her to reprimand White, Ferlita and Alvarez. We can not live in an intolerant society. These three are not representing themselves. They are representing the people of Tampa."

* * *

"I am horrified that the City Council of Tampa would allow an atheist to open a meeting. This nation was founded by God. This isn't about diversity. It's about Satan gaining another foothold."

* * *

"Imagine a man saying, "I just can't sit here and listen to a woman.' Would Mary Alvarez support it? Imagine a white man saying, "We have never had people of an African-American group represent Americans, and I don't think it is appropriate in this setting.' Would Mary Alvarez be saying he was "brave?' "

* * *

"In no other time more than today do we need our higher power's guidance to use wisdom in connection with all of our day-to-day activities. We do not need to bow down to those who are so opposed to our collective beliefs and kowtow to assuage those few who would disrupt."

* * *

"Shame, shame on those of you who tried to suppress this act. Shame on you who found it necessary to leave during the invocation. Mr. Dingfelder: Continue on, do not be intimidated, and Bravo!"

* * *

"I applaud you (Kevin White) for taking a stand yesterday morning. I speak to you not as a constituent, but as an employee for the city of Tampa. It could be difficult to serve a "boss' without faith or vision."