Winter Garden, Florida, August 28, 2014.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is condemning the mayor and police chief of Winter Garden, Fla., after the two men kicked a resident out of a city commission meeting on Aug. 28 for refusing to stand during a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
FFRF sent a letter of complaint Aug. 29 in support of the citizen, “John Thoreau,” a member of FFRF and the Central Florida Freethought Community, FFRF’s local chapter.
As documented in a video recorded by Thoreau, Mayor John Rees told everyone present at the meeting to rise for the invocation and the pledge. As the prayer began, Rees interrupted, pointing at the seated Thoreau and saying, “We’re waiting for everyone to rise.” Thoreau repeatedly asserted he did not have to and remained seated. The sectarian prayer, given by a commission member, continued.
When Thoreau also refused to stand for the pledge, Rees ordered Police Chief George Brennan to “either escort him out or have him stand for the pledge.” Rees continued, “This is just not fair to our troops and people overseas, sir.” Brennan asked Thoreau whether he would stand or leave. Thoreau responded, “I guess I’m leaving” and was escorted out of the room in front of the nearly 100 people in the audience.
Rees claimed the refusal to stand was disrespectful, telling the Orlando Sentinel, “I did not make him stand for the prayer, but the pledge? Even school kids stand. So I told him, ‘You have two choices: You can stand or go outside.’ ”
“These actions were an astounding violation of Thoreau’s rights,” said FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, citing several court cases holding that compelling citizens to recite the pledge or salute the flag is unconstitutional, including the 1943 Supreme Court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, where the Supreme Court explained, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Seidel informed Rees and Brennan that it is also unconstitutional to coerce citizens into showing deference to prayers, writing, “The government cannot ask people to stand, let alone force people to stand under threat of arrest.”
As a remedy to this violation of Thoreau’s civil rights, FFRF urges Rees and Brennan to each explain at the next meeting that “citizens are within their rights to remain sitting for the pledge and that it does not reflect a lack of patriotism. In fact, refusing to rise and repeat the pledge is more patriotic and respectful of the godless, secular Constitution that created this nation, than rising and declaring our nation to be 'one nation under God.'” Twenty-four percent of FFRF’s membership is active or retired service members.
The letter informs the officials to expect members of the Central Florida Freethought Community to be at the next commission meeting. “In a show of solidarity with John,” Seidel wrote, “they will exercise their First Amendment rights to remain seated during the invocation and pledge, both involving gods and a religion they do not worship. Mayor Rees and Chief Brennan ought to honor their rights.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate