Winter Garden keeps pledge but won’t say invocations

(Winter Garden, FL, September 5, 2014)

Winter Garden's City Commission voted Friday to continue reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to open meetings but it will substitute a moment of silence for the city's traditional prayer.

The 3-2 vote on the resolution came at a special meeting called amid an uproar that began last week when the mayor asked police to remove a man who refused to stand for the pledge.

The resolution approved by the five-member commission includes a rule that says no one "shall be required to participate in, and/or rise for" the moment of silence or the pledge.

Richardson, 51, a software engineer and father of three, shrugged afterward when asked about the apology.

He said he understood that most Winter Garden residents probably preferred that he stand for the pledge and that the city keep the invocation, a brief ceremonial prayer or reflection.

Richardson tried to explain why he continued sitting last week when asked to stand.

"I would like to say that I intensely respect our country, our military and their sacrifices, but I also reserve that right to show respect in ways that I choose and not in ways that are mandated either through legislation or peer pressure."

He also read a letter from his wife, Kathleen, who urged the commission to continue reciting the pledge.

About 100 people gathered in commission chambers for the special meeting. Many came to urge commissioners not to change the traditional opening — and not to bow to pressure from what they considered to be a minority viewpoint.

Some wore T-shirts bearing the American flag, others wore flag lapel pins.

"This is the greatest country in the world," said Steven Nuzzo, 53, speaking against the proposed policy changes. "If somebody doesn't like the fact that we should be saying the Pledge of Allegiance before a public meeting, then let them wait out in the hall. There's no reason to change anything, OK?"

He praised Winter Garden as "old-town America."

"It's how it's supposed to be," Nuzzo said. "What's so terrible about saying the Pledge of Allegiance…What's wrong with saying God bless America or invoking a prayer?"

But commissioners also heard from others who pleaded with them to get rid of the pledge and prayer.

"I am baffled why you have to open a public meeting with anything beyond 'Welcome!'" said Choice Edwards, who came to the meeting to support Richardson.

Winter Garden had traditionally started its public commission meetings with a call to order that asks the audience to stand for an invocation and the recitation of the 31-word pledge. The invocation has usually been provided by one of the five elected commissioners, who typically offer a brief Christian prayer.

Since May, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of prayer at government meetings, atheists, agnostics and humanists have asked Orlando, Orange County and other local governments for an opportunity to present an invocation.

The mayor called for the special meeting Friday because he did not want to debate the issue at the commission's next scheduled meeting, Sept. 11, the anniversary of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"We need to spend that evening reflecting on the events that happened 13 years ago," Rees said.

Though many in the crowd disagreed with Richardson, the tone of the meeting was polite and civil.

Retired pastor K. F. DeSha, 88, who was wearing a tie bearing an American flag, defended both the mayor, who he knew well, and Richardson, an atheist he had never met. DeSha said the mayor was wrong to boot Richardson.

"He loves this country, truly he does," DeSha said of the mayor. "But we have the privilege of expressing ourselves."

After the meeting, Rees faced reporters who asked if he regretted the controversy.

"I think you always regret negative comments in the community," he said. "We're a great town. You saw the order in there. It was absolutely beautiful how our citizens and everybody responded and behaved and listened to all points of view whether we agreed with them or not."

The mayor was one of two votes against the moment of silence. He preferred to keep the invocation.

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