Perhaps one of the most challenging Apopka City Commission meetings we have seen in a long time will be held next Wednesday Oct 21, at 7:00 pm. And the challenge will occur within the first five minutes of this meeting. That challenge will be presented by the Central Florida Freethought Community in the form of an invocation as the first order of business. The group’s motto is “for the separation of church and state”, but a reading of the various tabs on its website indicate this group is a secular, humanist, atheist organization. Reading through some of their invocations is sad indeed. There is literally no belief system in something higher than themselves. One invocation prays to “mother earth.” Most of the invocations are innocuous enough and appeal to a common good or goal. The Apopka Chief reported last week that the group approached our Mayor with a request to give an invocation to open a Commission meeting. Mayor Kilsheimer had little choice but to grant the request, in light of the 2014 US Supreme Court ruling Town of Greece v. Galloway. The decision made clear that governments who include invocations as part of their meeting agendas must have non-discriminatory invocation policies. In the CFFC’s mind, this means a humanist cannot be denied the opportunity to offer an invocation if citizens of other faiths are also allowed to do this.
The group’s main focus of the separation of church and state battles appears to be within public schools, as a listing of what they call their “dirty dozen” includes: school events may not include prayers; school clubs may not have a “chaplain” or religious counsel; schools may not teach religious doctrine such as creationism (curiously enough, they have no problem with the teaching of darwinism or evolution). Schools may not allow religious displays on school property. One wonders what these people are so afraid of, but that is for another post.
The First Amendment to our Constitution, reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..” The Constitution was written to place limits on what the Federal Government could do, NOT what local governments could do. NO WHERE in the Constitution will you find the phrase, “separation of church and state.” In fact, this phrase was found in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, years after the Ratification of the Constitution, to the Danbury Baptist of Connecticut, where he clarified his understanding of the First Amendment as building a wall of separation between Church and state. And while the Constitution does “separate” church and state, it generally allowed for general displays, encouragement and support of religion in public laws, in public speeches, on public property and even in schools. Its has been only in the last 125 years or so, that judges across the land have seized upon a phrase in a letter as an excuse to expunge all vestiges of religion from the public sector.
Many are disturbed by the appearance of this group at our Commission meeting. CFFC has given invocations at many government meetings across Central Florida in the last couple of years, emboldened by the Supreme Court decision cited above. One very important part of the First amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law… or abridging the freedom of speech”. In other words, we must defend the right of this group to have its say, not matter how utterly disagreeable or detestable we find it. That said, we also have every right to respectfully disagree with that speech.
So the question is, how will we approach the first five minutes of our meeting next week? Each of us should answer that for ourselves. Some have suggested leaving the meeting room during the invocation and praying in the hall. I for one, will not leave a room I have every right to be in. I plan to sit quietly during the invocation, in prayer, with my Bible raised over my head. I intend to let the presence of my Bible do my talking for me. The group’s assumption is that up to 20% of attendees at any meeting where an invocation is given are non-believers and made to feel very uncomfortable by being asked to stand and bow their heads. Let’s prove them wrong. Let’s show them Apopka is a faith based community. We should not be afraid or dismayed by their appearance at our meeting. Instead, let’s welcome them in the Spirit of our God and show them just how wrong they are.