Cape Coral, Florida – A nationally-known atheist activist group is demanding that a city in Southwest Florida cease opening its council meetings with prayer.
Although it would not disclose the name of the individual, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) says that it received a complaint from a Cape Coral resident who had attended a meeting and was uncomfortable with the invocations. The organization sent a letter last August to object to the prayers, but Mayor John Sullivan ignored the correspondence. FFRF has now sent a second letter, which Sullivan said will not receive a response.
“I’m offended,” Sullivan told reporters this week. “I’m not going to waste my time.”
The letter from FFRF asserted that the prayers were “unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive.”
“When a government affiliates itself with a religion, that violates the Constitution,” FFRF attorney Patrick Elliot told reporters. “I think it would be best for them to remove the prayer altogether. Members can pray on their own time, not on taxpayer time.”
But Sullivan says that the prayers are non-denominational, and that the Constitution only demands that a certain denomination within Christianity not be favored over another. Many Founding Fathers wrote and spoke about their Christian faith both in public speeches and in written correspondence.
While approximately 850 people are members of the Florida chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Sullivan says that it does not sway his beliefs about the right to pray at city council meetings.
Mayor John Sullivan
“They can object to anything they want; it’s within their constitutional rights,” Sullivan told WFTX-TV. “But I’m not going to let 850 people determine what we do at a council meeting.”
“A lot more people believe in God than don’t believe in God,” he added to the News-Press. “Who should prevail in that situation?”
However, Sullivan stated that if other officials within the city wish to alter or replace the prayers, he will not stop them from doing so.
“It’s up to the council,” he said. “If they want to change it, then they can go ahead with a majority vote. That’s fine.”
But council members seem to be supportive of the prayers, and find them to be beneficial to the meetings.
“I firmly believe that I would like to have some oversight in what I believe is my Heavenly Father to help us make the right decisions, [and] to help us do the right things for our citizens,” stated Councilman Kevin McGrail. “If it’s truly offensive, we say the invocation first, and the Pledge of Allegiance second. Walk in the door after they are both complete.”
FFRF says that it wants the prayers replaced with a moment of silence. It threatened that if Sullivan and others within the city continue to ignore their correspondence, they may file a lawsuit and ask the courts to have the prayers thrown out.
“We’re not just going to continue to be ignored and let that be the end of it, or for our complainants,” said attorney Andrew Seidel of FFRF.
The organization had also expressed objections in 2010 over Cape Coral’s plans to erect a Ten Commandments monument at city hall.