Back in 2015, atheist Joseph Richardson delivered an invocation at the start of a meeting of the Apopka City Commission in Florida. It was a fine speech that didn’t make any references to a Higher Power (as you’d expect)… but at the end of the meeting, after Richardson had already gone home, one of the Commissioners turned to a pastor who was in the audience and asked him to give another invocation. A real one. In the name of Jesus. Because someone had to make up for the atheist’s lack of spiritual deference.
It just happened again.
Richardson was scheduled to deliver the invocation for the Eustis City Commission on Thursday, and he gave another excellent one. But once he finished, a Commissioner decided something more needed to be said.
Here’s what Richardson said:
Mayor and Commissioners,
I’m honored and grateful to be here to address you today on behalf of the Central Florida Freethought Community and freethinkers here in Eustis.
This day, in many quarters, Reason is being celebrated. Today is the National Day of Reason which seeks, among other things to “promote the development and application of reason,” a worthy goal that is radically inclusive.
It is through reason that, more than 2,200 years ago, with nothing more than shadows and a little geometry, Eratosthenes was able to show that the Earth was indeed a sphere and calculate its circumference to within 1%. It is through reason that 300 years ago we began the Enlightenment and struggled our way out of the darkness and superstition of the Middle Ages. Through reason, Einstein made predictions about the cosmos that we are still confirming 100 years later. Through reason, we know that we are intimately connected, not only to every other human, but also to every living thing.
Despite the advances of reason, we are all wrong about something. It is a continuous, life-long effort to be “less wrong” and to use new information and reason to achieve that goal. You have the opportunity to do that again tonight. You will receive new information and make decisions about that information. I urge you to exercise empathy to understand how your constituents feel, to use compassion to consider how your decisions will affect them, and to apply reason in the evaluation all of these things.
I’m particularly glad to see that you’re proclaiming Public Service Recognition Week tonight. Public service is often empathy, compassion and reason in action.
So on this, the National Day of Reason, I encourage you to be conscious of your own empathy, compassion and especially reason, be humble in your self-assessment, be judicious in the exercise of your sacred duty as commissioners, and strive always to be “less wrong” through the uninhibited use of reason.
See? A lovely speech that was meant for everyone.
Or… a horrible speech that needed more Jesus. At least that’s what Commissioner Anthony Sabatini suggested by delivering a religious invocation the moment Richardson was done. This invocation wasn’t listed on the agenda (though it was announced at the start of the meeting). Sabatini asked everyone to stand and bow their heads, too, unlike Richardson.
During the public comments portion of the evening, at around the 3:50 mark below, David Williamson of the Central Florida Freethought Community expressed his appreciation for allowing Richardson to speak, before calling out the Commissioners for treating the secular invocation as if it didn’t count.
… I wonder how, if another faith tradition had done the invocation today, and then that were to be corrected by another invocation done, how would that go [over]?
[SABATINI: It wasn’t a correction.]
This is my time…
[SABATINI: It was not a correction.]
… I have a few rhetorical questions. Is it common to have two invocations at this meeting? Is it common to have an invocation that’s not on the agenda? Is it common to have an invocation by a Commissioner? Because all three of those things are problematic… and we’ll make sure that we inform the staff attorney about those concerns that we have.
Why is this a trend? We saw it with State Rep. Athena Salman in Arizona last month, too, where a fellow politician decided her invocation wasn’t good enough.
Atheist invocations don’t need a Jesus-infested “do-over.”
You will never see a Christian prayer at a government meeting followed by a secular one to make up for it. That would be uncalled for and completely disrespectful to the speaker. And yet when an atheist begins the proceedings with a perfect fine invocation, Christians feel like it’s their duty to make a correction.
Sabatini owes Richardson, Williamson, and the entire CFFC group a public apology.
If this Commission wants to have invocations at meetings, they can’t institute a secret rule that all speakers must refer to Jesus or else.