2014 Press Releases
29 August 2014
Mayor, Police Chief Condemned for Ejecting Citizen
Who Refused to Stand for Prayer/Pledge
Winter Garden—The Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC) condemns Winter Garden Mayor and Police Chief for removing a city resident from Thursday’s Commission Meeting. The CFFC’s parent organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter of complaint in support of the citizen, “John Thoreau,” a member of the CFFC. The CFFC has been documenting the beginning of local government meetings in Central Florida to ensure elected officials follow the law by allowing persons of every religion and those of no religion to participate.
In video recorded by Thoreau, Mayor John Rees told everyone at Thursday’s Commission Meeting to rise for the invocation and Pledge. As the prayer began, Rees interrupted, pointing at the seated Thoreau and saying, “We’re waiting for everyone to rise.” Thoreau repeatedly asserted he did not have to and remained seated. Rees moved to the invocation, a sectarian prayer given by a commission member.
When Thoreau also refused to stand for the Pledge, Rees ordered Police Chief George Brennan to “either escort him out or have him stand for the Pledge.” Brennan asked Thoreau whether he would stand or leave. Thoreau responded, “I guess I’m leaving,” and was escorted out of the room in front of nearly 100 fellow citizens.
Rees claimed the refusal to stand was disrespectful, telling the Orlando Sentinel “I did not make him stand for the prayer, but the Pledge? Even school kids stand. So I told him, ‘You have two choices: You can stand or go outside.’”
“The Mayor and the Police Chief clearly don’t understand the law,” CFFC Founder David Williamson said. “It’s been seventy years since the Supreme Court decided our public school students do not have to stand for the Pledge and I am aware of no time in our history when standing for the Pledge was mandatory for adults, regardless of the reason.”
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel criticized this behavior, writing, “These actions were an astounding violation of Thoreau’s rights.” Seidel cited several court cases holding that compelling citizens to recite the Pledge or salute the flag is unconstitutional, including the 1943 Supreme Court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette where the Court explained, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Seidel informed Rees and Brennan that it is also unconstitutional to coerce citizens into showing deference to prayers, writing, “The government cannot ask people to stand, let alone force people to stand under threat of arrest.”
As a remedy to this violation of Thoreau’s civil rights, FFRF urges Rees and Brennan to each explain at the next meeting 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.’” Twenty-four percent of FFRF’s membership is active or retired service members.
The letter informs the officials to expect members of the CFFC at next city commission meeting. “In a show of solidarity with John,” Seidel wrote, “they will exercise their First Amendment rights to remain seated during the invocation and pledge, both involving gods and a religion they do not worship. Mayor Rees and Chief Brennan ought to honor their rights.”
15 July 2014
Orange School Board Reverses Censorship;
Atheists Vow to Distribute More Literature
Orlando—The free speech case filed by the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC) and the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) against the Orange County School Board was dismissed after the School Board agreed to allow the originally censored materials to be distributed. In 2013, the CFFC sought to distribute literature including several books in eleven public high schools after the district allowed an evangelical Christian group to distribute bibles at those same campuses. The majority of the materials were censored with no time to make arrangements for alternates to be purchased.
"We intend to give out a lot more literature to educate students about atheism and the importance of keeping religion out of public schools. We are even designing new materials specifically for students and families in Orange County,” said David Williamson, Founder of the CFFC.
Co-plaintiff and FFRF Co-President Dan Barker, a former evangelical preacher said “We consider this a victory. The court has said that the school district is allowing all the materials that were initially prohibited,” said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “We disagree with how the court and the school district chose to handle this clear-cut discrimination, so we’ll likely be appealing on some issues, but overall, it’s a win.”
From the beginning, CFFC and FFRF have maintained that Orange County Public Schools should close the distribution forum. “The irony is that kids can get a bible anywhere. It’s the country’s most widely available book,” FFRF Staff Attorney, Andrew Seidel, said, “but where could a Christian kid get a copy of Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation so easily? As long as the forum remains open, they can get one in Orange County Public Schools.”
Opportunities for local activism are easy to find these days, and while our plates are already brimming with important work that keeps our organizations thriving, it is rare when an opportunity comes along that requires little effort but can help us meet several goals at one time. The recent decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway is that perfect opportunity and every local leader in the movement should consider taking advantage of it. The Supreme Court made clear that governments must have non-discriminatory invocation policies and upheld Greece’s practice largely because “a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give an invocation.” Put simply, a humanist resident cannot be denied the opportunity to offer an invocation if citizens of other faiths deliver invocations.
The time to act is now while your members, your local government, and the media are still talking about it. These are just a few of the benefits that are too good to pass up:
Educating elected officials and all in attendance about Humanist values
Testing the forum for equal protection to ensure compliance with the ruling
Normalizing the participation of nonbelievers in local government meetings
Engaging local media about our message of inclusion and diversity
The Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC) is an affiliate of the American Humanist Association (AHA) and a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Our mission is to unite members of local freethought organizations in state/church activism. While we disagree with the Court’s decision in Town of Greece since it continues to allow prayer at government meetings, we are turning it into something truly positive.
We have members in every Central Florida county and in dozens of cities and towns. Our plan is to contact each local government in the coming months that begins their meeting with a prayer, but for now we are focused on low-hanging fruit. We contacted those governments with prayers led by religious clergy as well as those that have a publicized invitation for clergy participation. We only contact localities where our members reside. However, we don’t need to have invocation-givers residing in the locality unless the policy or practice requires it. In other words, we need a legitimate claim that we should be included in the invocation practice.
With a strong contingent of humanist celebrants and a humanist chaplain in the Orlando area we have several ambassadors to choose from. Since the Town of Greece decision noted that anyone could perform the invocations, we were not limited to just those individuals. A list of humanist celebrants who are able to give invocations can be found at the Humanist Society website. If you are looking to draft your own secular invocation, check out the CFFC websitewhere we have transcribed humanist invocations including word counts, durations, and videos going back ten years. Our recent local invocations are there as well.
With the help of attorneys Monica Miller at AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center and Andrew Seidel at FFRF, we drafted a very effective request letter that you can use. Each government meeting is tracked on a spreadsheet with contact information so we can use a mail merge to quickly print letters and address envelopes. The letter was also sent attached to an email.
The first batch of about nineteen letters were sent in mid-May and at the time of this writing we have completed four invocations with seven more being scheduled. In some cases the “honor” of inviting someone for the invocation is shared and not assigned to a single person so our request was forwarded internally to each board member. We will be following up as needed and engaging attorneys in the process if we continue to be ignored.
So far, our invocations have been well received with good press coverage by local print andTV media. Each event is accompanied by a social event just before or after to make it a celebration in each area.
One word of caution: be sure you coordinate who will recite the Pledge of Allegiance ahead of time. No adult, and certainly no child, can be compelled to do this so consider passing that duty back to the board itself. Pledge activism may be a legitimate reason for not inviting you back, so think it through if you decide to engage in that.
Whatever your local organization’s goals this project is likely to help you achieve many of them. The effort required is minimal and the benefits are extremely long term. Being a featured guest at your local government meeting and offering an inclusive and inspirational secular reflection in stark contrast to the typical divisive prayers is a great way to make some sweet lemonade out of the tons of lemons the Supreme Court gave us this year.
13 May 2014
After Supreme Court Decision on Prayer
Local Freethinkers to Offer Secular Invocations
Orlando, FL—The Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and an affiliate of the American Humanist Association has launched a campaign to seek inclusion for more than one-fifth of the local population who identify themselves as “nones,” or none of the above, regarding their religion.
The CFFC is contacting over two dozen local councils, boards, and commissions which currently start their meetings with a religious invocation. The goal is to have group members offer a non-religious reflection before meetings which would be inclusive of all citizens, unlike the current practice of prayer which is exclusive of non-believers and divisive among religious people.
David Williamson, of the CFFC, said, “We hoped a majority of Supreme Court Justices would realize that policy designed for state legislatures has no business in city or county meetings which include public participation. But, since they did not, we have to work with decision as is. Our aim is to ensure that non-believers, as well as all other religious minorities, are included. The Greece decision supports our plan perfectly.”
The decision in Greece v. Galloway, which was returned just last week, specifically includes equal access to the invocation as part of its justification for allowing the prayers to continue. It reads, in part, “The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.”
Currently, at least six area county commissions (Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Volusia, Lake, and Brevard) begin meetings with a prayer along with at least thirty city or town councils. Each will be sent a letter requesting inclusion of a secular invocation by a member of the CFFC. School boards will not be contacted since the CFFC and several appeals courts agree that school prayer law already bars such prayer.
Williamson continues: “The Greece decision makes it unlikely that government prayers will cease any time soon. If our local elected officials wish to continue praying before meetings, we expect them to provide an opportunity for a truly unifying message to be shared by one of our organization’s members—a message that embraces all citizens as equal participants in the process of local government.”
An example of the letter can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/cffcwinterparkletter