(Tavares, FL, August 30, 2014)
Sitting in the County Commission chambers this week, Gail Boettger couldn't believe it when the meeting began not with a Christian prayer but with a secular invocation.
The secular invocation was delivered Tuesday by Paul Tjaden, a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community, a group of "nonbelievers" and a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Tjaden noted that Lake is a diverse community with residents of many faiths including Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Wiccan and "people who profess no religious belief at all."
Later, addressing commissioners on another matter, Boettger, of Howey-in-the-Hills, expressed her disappointment.
"Removal of the prayer? Wow," she said. "Shame on you."
It was the seventh of eight scheduled invocations at meetings of Central Florida government bodies since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in May that Christian prayers at government meetings are OK while also keeping the door open to non-Christians to participate.
The Supreme Court ruling upheld the right of town board officials in Greece, N.Y., to open meetings with sectarian prayers because the policy also allowed both clergy and laypersons to deliver them.
The challenge was brought by an atheist and a Jew whose lawyers said the practice violated the constitutional prohibition regarding establishment of religion.
"The silver lining here is that the Supreme Court made clear if local governments are going to start their meetings with prayers, they must be inclusive," said Gregory Lipper, an attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed suit against Greece.
But this week brought word that Greece officials have instituted a new policy prohibiting atheists from delivering opening invocations that may test the limits of the ruling.
At the commission meeting this week, Tjaden said he came not to pray "but instead to invoke the spirit of goodwill among all of us."
He added, "We share the goal of making our Lake County the best place it can be."
Instead of closing his invocation with an "amen," he said simply, "Thank you."
Commission Chairman Jimmy Conner said later in the week that "God" has become a "curse word to liberals. I can't stand it. I really mean that, too."
But he said the county has to be open-minded about who gives invocations.
"I think everyone understands the Supreme Court decision. You have to let those folks come occasionally."
Central Florida Freethought Community founder David Williamson said two women thanked Tjaden for the invocation.
"What we wanted to do was to make sure we offer an invocation that included everyone," he said.
But Boettger sees things differently.
"America was founded on Judaic-Christian principles and values. I will not apologize for that," she said. "Our founding fathers of this great United States of America, they prayed."
This article includes information from the Los Angeles Times.
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