On Tuesday, atheist Joseph Richardson of the Central Florida Freethought Community was slated to deliver an invocation during a meeting of the Lake County Board of County Commissioners in Florida. He gave an excellent speech, thanking the commissioners and staffers for their hard work and urging everyone to keep their “hearts and minds open.”
Perfectly fine. Completely non-offensive.
But then, moments after Richardson was done, Fred Schneider from the local Public Works Department was invited to give a second invocation. A replacement invocation. A Christian invocation. Because, apparently, the secular one didn’t count.
Schneider only spoke for 30 seconds, but he referenced “Father God in Heaven,” Jesus, blessings, and prayer, making it obvious that Christianity would be explicitly included in the meeting.
Maybe the most damning thing Schneider said was the admission right up front: “I was just asked a few minutes ago if I would lead in the prayer…”
That suggests his invocation wasn’t planned in advance; it was put on the agenda at the last second by Lake County officials as if to correct the mistake of letting an atheist speak. That doesn’t happen when a Christian gives an invocation. It doesn’t even happen when a religious non-Christian speaks. This is nothing more than an insult to all non-Christians in the community, implying that their inspirational messages don’t count.
It’s not even the first time this sort of thing has happened to Richardson specifically!
In 2019, when he gave an invocation in the city of Ocoee, FL, the mayor appeared to apologize on behalf of the city afterwards.
In 2017, when Richardson gave an invocation in Eustis, FL, his comments were followed by a second religious invocation from then-Commissioner Anthony Sabatini.
In 2015, when Richardson gave an invocation in Apopka, FL, the mayor waited until the end of the meeting (after Richardson had left the building) to ask a Christian pastor to give a second invocation. He even said to the pastor, “Since we were kind of uncovered at the start of the meeting, can you cover us with a benediction as we leave tonight?”
These government officials believe Christianity is a necessary ingredient in their meetings. It’s illegal, yet it happens all too frequently.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has now sent a letter to the commissioners in Lake County, calling their actions “discriminatory, unconstitutional, and a slap in the face to all of Lake County’s non-Christian citizens.”
We write to ask that the Board ensure that all future invocation givers are treated with respect and that the discriminatory conduct exhibited at the December 6th meeting does not occur again in the future. If the Board cannot treat invocation speakers equally, the practice of having an invocation needs to be eliminated entirely.
The Establishment Clause thus requires that a nonbeliever who delivers the invocation be treated the same as someone who delivers a Christian prayer. When the board asks for a Christian prayer to “correct” a prayer or invocation that was not Christian, the board engages in a practice that discriminates against minority faiths.
That’s not even a threat. It’s simply asking the Board to treat invocation speakers with respect, and if they’re unable to do that, then they can just get rid of the invocations altogether. There are easy solutions to this problem. It’s appalling that no one in a position of authority during that meeting spoke up to call out the blatant bigotry.