Florida officials are potentially gearing up for an intensified battle with atheists and “freethinkers” over prospective changes to policies governing prayers at the start of Polk County Commission meetings.
Rather than continuing the process of allowing random faith leaders to utter these invocations, officials plan to vote Tuesday on a proposal to shift pre-meeting prayers to five chaplains who volunteer through the Fire Rescue division.
On the surface, this might not seem like much of a problem, but atheists — who purportedly want to see the prayers totally halted — are voicing concerns, according to The Ledger.
Their main argument? Prayer is unneeded, and utilizing chaplains will very likely cut out the secular and atheistic “prayers” that have been uttered at meetings in the past.
Some might see the change as a way to cut back on the presence of secular “prayers,” though Polk County Commissioner Bill Braswell has said the change has everything to do with scheduling. He cited the fact that faith leaders too often cancel or are no-shows, leaving the commission without a solid prayer plan.
“There’s got to be a better way of doing it,” Braswell told The Ledger. “Why can’t we have a chaplain do it? We need someone who’s going to show up.”
Atheists, though, have expressed frustration with how Polk County has handled prayer in the past, citing a May 4 incident during which an atheist spoke and a commissioner — who some believe didn’t agree with the message offered — followed the atheist’s invocation with a prayer of his own.
Here’s how The Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist activist group, recapped the aforementioned event:
Sarah Ray, director of Atheist Community of Polk County, was given the opportunity in May to deliver an invocation before the board. She offered a respectful secular message of equality and diversity, exhorting Polk County to embrace many traditions: “We are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Humanists, atheists, agnostics, unaffiliated, uncertain and so many others.” She concluded by saying: “There is one thing on which we all agree: We share the goal of making Polk County — our county — the best place it can be. And we unite here today around that noble aim and common purpose.”
In an uncalled for afterword, Polk County Commissioners’ Board Chair Rick Wilson followed her invocation by asking everyone to stand and bow their heads and then delivered a Christian prayer.
Numerous atheist groups sent an October letter urging the county to halt invocations entirely, The Ledger reported.
The joint letter sent by numerous atheist groups called Wilson’s actions “discriminatory and unconstitutional,” and demanded equal treatment for believers and nonbelievers, alike.
“If the Board insists on continuing to host prayers at public meetings, it must not discriminate against any person delivering an invocation,” the letter read. “Secular invocations must be treated the same as Christian prayers.”
David Williamson, head of the Central Florida Freethought Community, told The Ledger a third of the county counts itself among the “non-religious” and that he has a problem with using only chaplains, especially considering the likely dearth of secular and non-religious chaplains.
“I’d be curious to learn about the diversity of the chaplains and their religious background,” Williamson said.
Despite apparent threats of litigation pending Tuesday’s vote, County Attorney Randy Mink believes officials are on solid footing, as the chaplain system is open to persons of all faiths.
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