LADY LAKE — Prayers will continue to be said at the start of Town Commission meetings, elected leaders decided Monday night in response to calls to end the practice by a resident who is an atheist and the American Humanist Association.
Hundreds of people who were packed into the commission chambers and several hundred more outside cheered and clapped in approval after the 5-0 vote. Many waved signs in support of prayer, including some that read "Keep our Freedom" and "In God We Trust." A woman wore a blue hat that read "Jesus is my boss."
By starting with an invocation, "it sets the tone of the meeting … that we must treat everyone respectfully," Mayor Jim Richards said in support of the long custom.
The issue of beginning meetings with an invocation heated up last month when town resident Bill Calhoun complained doing so isolates particular groups of people, including atheists, because the prayers are frequently led by Christians and Jesus Christ's name is often used. Calhoun asked that the town have a moment of silence instead of a prayer.
Calhoun said at the meeting that the Constitution's separation of church and state "is set up to prevent the government from endorsing one religion."
However, Commissioner Ruth Kussard said anyone who is offended doesn't have to listen and "could come back after the prayer" because that's when the meeting starts.
But Calhoun later said that the right to religion "is not majority rules" and "I should not have to absent myself from a public meeting."
Perhaps the biggest roar from the crowd came at the start of the meeting when H.G. Bevill, pastor of Lake Hermosa Church of God in Lady Lake, ended the invocation with "in the name of Lord Jesus Christ" loudly.
Commissioner Paul Hannan questioned why Calhoun would even bring the issue up.
"It confuses me and others why you would want to burden Lady Lake taxpayers with this," Hannan said.
Calhoun was the only one who spoke against having the prayers. One by one, more than a dozen residents spoke in favor of continuing the prayers.
"Just because you're offended doesn't mean you have the right," said Pamela Dahl of Lady Lake, president of the Tri-County Tea Party, an organization for Lake, Sumter and Marion counties.
The American Humanist Association, a non-theistic educational group that defends the separation of church and state, backed Calhoun in his complaint. In a letter to the town, William Burgess, the group's legal coordinator, said the association was concerned that many Lady Lake Town Commission meetings open with prayers led by members of Christian-based places of worship, and that may be isolating attendees who have different beliefs.
"All residents of Lady Lake deserve to feel welcome when interacting with their local city government," Burgess wrote in a letter to officials of the town of about 14,000.
However, town attorney Derek Schroth defended the prayers, saying Lady Lake does not promote a particular religious belief, and a member from any group is allowed to offer an invocation. In fact, Sheldon Skurow, spiritual leader of Temple Shalom, a Sumter County-based synagogue, led the invocation at a March commission meeting.
After the unanimous vote in support of continuing the prayers, Calhoun said he will contact his attorney and decide his next move.
The issue of prayers at government meetings has long been a delicate issue, and legal experts have said that allowing or disallowing invocations touches upon religious and freedom-of-speech protections.
In 2007, an Osceola County attorney advised county commissioners to stop using Jesus Christ's name in prayers at the start of meetings.
Earlier that year a chaplain at Leesburg Regional Medical Center was fired after refusing to stop praying "in the name of Jesus" among the hospital's non-Christian patients, staff and visitors.
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