Winter Garden city commissioners will meet in special session Friday to discuss changing their opening ceremonies following a confrontation last week in which the mayor ousted a man for refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
City Manager Mike Bollhoefer said the city has been considering changes to its traditional opening because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May regarding ceremonial prayer, but the commission moved up the issue after Mayor John Rees ordered Winter Garden resident Joseph Richardson to stand for the pledge or be escorted from the chambers by police.
"It's an important issue that we have to resolve, and we decided we ought to resolve it sooner rather than later," Bollhoefer said.
The meeting's topics Friday will include prayer as well as the Pledge of Allegiance.
Rees was strongly criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Wisconsin-based atheist group Freedom from Religion Foundation, which emailed the mayor and asked him to explain at the next meeting that citizens are within their rights to stay seated for the prayer and pledge.
The foundation also said Rees owed Richardson an apology, but it's unclear if the mayor will do so. Rees could not be immediately reached.
"The government cannot ask people to stand, let alone force people to stand under the threat of arrest," said Andrew Seidel, a lawyer for the foundation.
The foundation, through Richardson, has asked the city to change the way it opens its meetings, particularly the invocation, which is generally a Christian-reflection offered by a city commissioner or clergyman.
"Local governments should not be in the business of writing and saying prayers – though under [the recent Supreme Court ruling] it may hand that duty off to citizens as long as that is done in a nondiscriminatory manner," Seidel said in his email to Rees and Winter Garden Police Chief George Brennan.
The foundation has recommended the city "get rid of prayer altogether" and stop asking citizens to stand.
Bollhoefer said the city has been peppered with emails on both sides of the issue, some supporting Rees and others criticizing him. "They run the gamut," Bollhoefer said. "Some have offered intelligent discussions — for and against the mayor's actions — and then you have the wingnuts out there who don't have the intelligence to spell a four-letter cuss word right."
In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against two residents of Greece, N.Y., — one Jewish, the other atheist — who had argued that the mostly Christian prayers offered at the start of each meeting were unconstitutional.
The Justices, split 5-4, decided that Christian prayers invoking Jesus' name at public meetings do not violate the constitutional prohibition against government-sponsored religion, but the court cautioned against using the invocations to proselytize.
Likewise, the 122-year-old pledge has been the focus of legal battles for years, including one in Florida in which a federal appeals court ruled it was unconstitutional to force students to recite — or even stand "at attention" — for the pledge.
The case involved an 11th-grader at a school in Palm Beach County whose parents sued in 2005 after the teen was punished and ridiculed by his teacher for refusing to stand while his classmates recited the pledge.
Rees's action was wrong, said Baylor Johnson, spokesman for the ACLU.
"People are not required to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance or a sectarian prayer or any kind of compulsory expression just to attend a public meeting," he said.
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