TAMPA -- If there's anything dopier than the idea of a Unitarian missionary, it's the idea of an atheist delivering an invocation.
But that's what happened before the July 29 meeting of the Tampa City Council. The results resembled outtakes from a Marx Brothers movie. Nobody looked very good, least of all rookie Democratic councilman John Dingfelder, whose idea the whole thing was.
Before council got down to the gray business of Tampa government, three council members had walked out, the atheist invoker had been gaveled down and declared out of order after he attempted to lecture the council on the constitutionality of having prayers at government meetings, and attorney Dingfelder had scolded that keeping an atheist from delivering the city council invocation was "censorship," providing further evidence that the bar exam is too easy.
The usual suspects, including the Florida ACLU, showed up and hammed it up in the usual way. The local media weren't quite sure what to make of it. A newsreader with the local ABC affiliate referred to the invoker as "a devout atheist." ("The family that doesn't pray together, stays together"?)
When it was done we had the answer to the obvious question --what on earth (or elsewhere) does an atheist invoke? Turns out it's "history," "science," and "diversity" (there's that word again) and "logic," and "compassion and tolerance."
But, let's back up.
IN TAMPA, CITY COUNCIL MEMBERS rotate picking members of the clergy to deliver the pre-meeting invocation, which often turns out to provide the most peaceful and coherent few minutes of council meetings. But just because things have worked fine for generations, that's no reason not to change.
Not everyone was happy with the traditional way of doing things. Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena, a liberal Democrat, said she's been offended by some of the invocations. Before the rotation system, the local ministerial association provided invokers, who, Saul-Sena complained, were always "white male Baptists." They weren't, but Saul-Sena isn't much on details.
Saul-Sena probably has a point, though, that most of the prayers have been Christian, some even denominational. So some sensitivity on the part of prayer-givers was called for. But last Thursday's pre-meeting festivities were about as sensitive as a "Hee-Haw" re-run.
Dingfelder, who had the invocation line-up card for July, decided to give the July 29 honors to a group called Atheists of Florida, because "city hall belongs to everybody -- I think we should be as inclusive as we can."
Dingfelder's connection with the group is his neighbor and high school classmate, Ed Golly, current president of Atheists of Florida (a group of about 150 strong, Golly told me). Golly chose Michael Harvey -- a polite and presentable 35-ish software project manager to give what Golly is reasonably sure is the first atheist invocation at a government meeting in Florida.
I talked with Harvey a few days before the event. He told me he would have a "soft" message that would not disrespect anyone's beliefs. He was mostly as good as his word on this part. He also said the remarks would be "non-political." But he apparently doesn't understand political any more than Dingfelder understands censorship. He got into trouble with, "When an invocation takes on the form of public prayer it is also a violation of the very principles upon which our country and constitution were founded….we are dismayed that the practice of public prayer by governing bodies charged with representing all citizens still continues in violation of the Constitution."
At this point council chairman Shawn Harrison gaveled down the constitutional law lecture, though he finally allowed Harvey to finish his statement, a statement that even Dingfelder later conceded was political. Council members Rose Ferlita, Kevin White, and Mary Alvarez missed this piece of political theater, having already cleared the room rather than listen to an atheist deliver an invocation.
DINGFELDER SAYS HE'S a firm believer in separation of church and state, and has been "offended by the extremely religious nature of the invocations that come before us."
Well, duh. The invocation is a religious form. It's a recognition of God and a request for God's presence, blessing, leadership, and wisdom on whatever endeavor is taking place. Folks who don't want God mixed in with their government can (and have) argued that prayer should be banished from government meetings. A least this is a more coherent point of view than having atheists, and God knows what other secular groups ("Tonight's invocation is from a spokesman for 'Florida Eats More Oysters'"), moving in on religious forms that make no sense when God is not included.
By the by, no one is trying to stop the Florida Atheists - or anyone else -- from making their points. There's a public comment section in every Tampa City Council meeting, and groups far flakier than the Florida Atheists regularly take full advantage of it..
Dingfelder told me his political adviser said this would not be a good idea. I guess I misspoke earlier on. At least one person does look good in all of this. Maybe Dingfelder should listen to good advice when he gets it.
Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa.
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