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The mayor of Ocoee, Florida appeared to apologize on behalf of the city after an atheist delivered a perfectly decent invocation.

It occurred on March 5, after atheist Joseph Richardson delivered the opening words at the Ocoee City Commission Meeting. Richardson urged the officials to adopt inclusive policies and promote evidence-based policies — against, a fine way to begin the session. (Incidentally, this was the third atheist invocation in the city. All three, Richardson told me, occurred after they requested the opportunity. Usually, though, a Christian delivers the invocation and it’s often a commissioner or city employee.)

YouTube video

… Let this be an encouragement to reset your thoughts and intentions to the foundation of empathy and compassion, and to remember that every citizen is a person with their own thoughts and feelings who is equally deserving of your consideration.

At a time where divisiveness seems to be rampant, let your decisions here tonight run against that harmful current and include rather than exclude.


And so, in that spirit, I encourage everyone here, as the work progresses, to put aside personal preferences, to evaluate hard data, to consider deeply the effects of decisions, to judge issues rationally, to debate respectfully, to decide fairly, and to continue to include everyone.

Again, that’s a strong, powerful, and appropriate message to send to the commissioners.

Now check out what happened less than a minute after Richardson finished his address (and after the commissioners said the Pledge of Allegiance) around the 3:33 mark of the full meeting:

YouTube video

Mayor Rusty Johnson takes the microphone and says to the crowd:

I want to say something. I apologize. This is something that was brought to us to do, not that we do it. We try to let everybody have a voice in whatever they want to do. So I just wanted to make sure everybody knows.

What was he apologizing for? I’ve watched the beginning of that video several times, and I can’t think of any reason other than trashing the man who just gave the invocation.

I emailed Johnson a couple of nights ago to ask what Richardson said that he found so problematic. I also wanted to know if he ever apologized after Christians gave invocations. He told me I had it wrong and that his comments had nothing to do with Richardson’s remarks:

It had nothing to do with the invocation. There was some confusion regarding an issue I brought up at the beginning of the meeting.

Really? Was there? With what issue? If you watch the beginning of that video, literally no other issue is brought up. His answer makes no sense. And if he was referring to some other problem at the meeting, where’s the resolution or the nods of understanding from fellow commissioners?

Richardson wasn’t buying that excuse either when I told him about it. Which means we’re left with video evidence of our suspicions… and a mayor who implies his words were taken completely out of context.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.

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