Atheist and civil liberties groups criticized the mayor of Winter Garden, Florida for delaying the start of the city commission’s meeting on Thursday to confront a local atheist for not standing during an invocation or the Pledge of Allegiance, the Friendly Atheist reported on Friday.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) contacted Mayor John Rees after a local man posted footage online of Rees asking him to stand on two separate occasions. After the man refused to stand for the pledge, Rees said he should do so or be “escorted” out of the meeting, saying, “It’s just not fair to our troops and people overseas.” Seconds later, a man identified as Police Chief John Brennan steps in front of the man’s camera.
“What do you want to do?” Brennan says. “Do you want to stand or leave?”
The man then leaves the meeting shortly before the video ends.
The foundation said in a letter (PDF) that Rees’ actions violated two Supreme Court decisions saying government officials did not have the right to force attendees to stand whenever the pledge is recited at meetings.
“Mayor Rees ought to explain that citizens are within their rights to remain sitting for the Pledge and that it does not reflect a lack of patriotism. (In fact, refusing to rise and repeat the Pledge is more patriotic and respectful of the godless, secular constitution that created this nation, than rising and declaring our nation to be ‘one nation under god.’)” the FFRF’s letter stated.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, City Manager Mike Bollhoefer identified the man who filmed the encounter as 51-year-old Joseph Richardson, a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC). Bollhoefer said Richardson has “repeatedly” asked the city via email to allow him to give an invocation.
“As a resident of Winter Garden, I would like our city to be known for its inclusiveness for all points of view and its respect for all individuals,” Richardson reportedly wrote this past May. “Opening up the commission meeting invocations to everyone would be a wonderful step in that direction.”
Bollhoefer also said Richardson would attend meetings, only to leave after the invocation and pledge.
“He doesn’t come to the meetings because he cares about the city,” Bollhoefer was quoted as saying.
Rees, who was elected to serve a third term this past March, told the Sentinel that his actions during the encounter were not premeditated.
“I just reacted. It hit me. I said it. I gave him an option,” Rees said. “Life will go on.”
Members of the CFFC have reportedly pledged to attend the next commission meeting in two weeks in support of Richardson, while the city was also criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida (ACLU) for Rees’ treatment of him.
“The problem with telling people they have to participate in any mandatory expression is that it tells people who might have a religious objection or other deeply held belief that, if they don’t go along with what the government tells them to do, they aren’t welcome in this community,” ACLU spokesperson Baylor Johnson told the Sentinel.
Watch the disagreement between Rees and Richardson, as posted online on Friday, below.