WINTER GARDEN Six months after voting 4-1 to restore the practice of opening each city commission meeting with a prayer, Winter Garden resident Edward Lynch opened the Oct. 22 meeting with the city’s first non-religious invocation.
He started by saying, “Bow your heads to no one, unless you want to.”
Two days before this meeting, Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent Mayor John Rees a letter about the city’s invocation policy.
“We understand that Winter Garden’s City Commission now has a diversity of speakers on its list of invocators, including atheists and other non-religious viewpoints, but that thus far, all invocations have been Christian,” he wrote.
Seidel said the foundation currently was litigating the same issue against Brevard County, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church & State.
Winter Garden resident Joseph Richardson, whose removal from a commission meeting last year for refusing to stand during the invocation and pledge became national news, said: “I personally appreciate the fact that after 14 meetings, you have finally invited a non-religious person. It is a step in the right direction. It is just unfortunate that it has taken this long and necessitated more complaining and another letter from FFRF to get here.”
Commissioner Colin Sharman said Lynch was his friend and that the decision to have him deliver the invocation was made independent of the Seidel’s letter.
“No letter made my decision to do this invocation,” he said.
He said he had not heard of or seen Seidel's letter.
David Williamson, of the Central Florida Freethought Community, the local affiliate of the FFRF, said: “It appears they didn’t communicate the information about the letter to all commissioners.”
He said he apologized to Sharman.
Williamson said in his remarks to the commission that his was a “message of gratitude.”
After the meeting, Williamson said his assumption the letter sparked the the invitation to Lynch was understandable because, after receiving a similar letter, the city of Apopka invited Richardson to give an invocation before a recent meeting.
Commissioner Bob Buchanan voted to retain the city’s moment of silence in March.
“I thought it (the moment of silence) would be the best response to these issues, and I still believe that,” he said.
Rees declined to comment on Richardson’s and Williamson’s remarks.
“We are not going away,” Richardson said. “We will only grow in numbers and in strength, and we have the law on our side.”
IN OTHER NEWS
• Commissioners awarded a contract for $1,401,851 to Crom Corporation to build a 1-million-gallon water storage tank to serve the growing southwest part of Winter Garden.
• The commission proclaimed Nov. 8 to 14 the Week of the Family. Elizabeth Rahter, from The Week of the Family Foundation, attended the meeting to accept the proclamation.