Atheist Groups Suing Cities Nationwide to Stop Prayer at City Hall Meetings

Several atheist activist organizations are continuing to sue cities nationwide in an effort to stop the prayers that open city hall meetings and other gatherings.

Cities in California, Florida, Missouri, New York and Tennessee are all currently fighting lawsuits from atheists groups that seek to remove God from government, a battle that has raged in many municipalities for some time.

Among those entrenched in the fight are officials in Hamilton County, Tennessee, who have been working to keep prayer at county commission meetings this year.

“They made it clear they’re not going to stop. And we’re going to make them,” said local resident Thomas Coleman, who is named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit along with fellow resident Brandon Jones. “We have an opportunity to do something that’s right and support the Constitution, something we know our founding fathers would be proud of. That’s what we’re doing.”

Commission Chairman Larry Henry told WRCB-TV that there is no reason to stop invoking the Creator at the meetings and imploring Him for guidance.

“Until we’re told otherwise that we’re in violation, we will continue to pray,” he stated.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), led by Dan Barker, similarly sent a letter earlier this month to Springfield, Illinois Mayor J. Michael Houston to demand that he cease his “grossly illegal” involvement in a city prayer breakfast. The organization, which often files lawsuits to challenge religion in public life, could sue Houston if his response is not satisfactory.

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In Lakeland, Florida, officials are continuing a legal battle over prayers during city commission meetings, which has now made its way to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals after a federal district court ruled that the prayers were constitutional.

The group Atheists of Florida claims that the prayers are discriminatory. They are asking the court to have the prayers replaced with a moment of silence.

“It offends nobody, and everybody can choose what they want to do during that moment of silence,” said chapter president Ellen Beth Wachs. “If you choose to pray you’re free to pray. If you want to do a grocery list during that moment of silence you’re free to do a grocery list. Nobody knows what you’re doing, but nobody’s stopping you from praying.”

The group also took out a billboard this past summer in the city that some residents found disturbing.

“It’s just a slap in the face to people of faith,” local business owner Bernita Gigowski told reporters. “It never ends. Until God is completely eradicated from our country and our traditional values people of non-faith will not stop. They will not be satisfied.”

For now, Lakeland officials are issuing a disclaimer prior to the prayers that states that the invocation is voluntary and not government-sponsored.

The city of Lancaster, California is also continuing a long, expensive fight after being first sued in 2010 for the prayers that open its meetings, which are overwhelmingly supported by the community. Mayor R. Rex Paris, 60, who is a born again Christian, told the Associated Press that although he has spent approximately $500,000 in the battle, he will not back down.

“Once the people realize you are standing up for more than fixing potholes, that sense of community really starts to coalesce,” Paris said.

However, some of the cities that have been challenged across the country have agreed to stop the prayers or to alter their practices to avoid a lawsuit.

Just last week, officials in Roanoke, Virginia changed the way it handles the invocations at city meetings, not limiting prayers to those made in the name of Jesus. Similar changes took place in Memphis, Tennessee this fall as officials were facing a potential lawsuit from atheists. Henrico County, Virginia, however, no longer allows prayer, and the city of Kannapolis, North Carolina recently instituted a moment of silence after the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter demanding that the practice cease and desist. Many cities such as Kannapolis state that while they have no problem with the prayers, they cannot afford expensive lawsuits at this time.

But, for other municipalities, the fight will continue as they believe that honoring God is important to American society, and will not cave into what they state are scare tactics.

“It’s really kind of a campaign of fear and disinformation,” Brett Harvey of the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom said.

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