Trouble was apparent after one man refused to stand for an invocation.
“We’d appreciate it if you would rise, or you may leave the room,” Winter Garden, Florida, Mayor John Rees told the man during a city commission meeting Thursday.
The man — identified as by a city official as Joseph Richardson, 51, the Orlando Sentinel reported — wasn’t budging.
“I don’t believe I have to do that, thank you,” he replied.
Rees didn’t take action at that point and went forward with the invocation. But afterward, Rees turned his attention again to the seated man.
“Now, sir, please stand while we do the pledge,” Rees said. “You don’t have to pledge, but please stand. Children have to in school, too.”
Richardson — who was videotaping the exchange — replied that students aren’t required to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, either.
Rees said standing for the pledge shows “respect for our country” and not standing isn’t “fair to our troops.” Rees told Richardson he had “one of two choices.”
Richardson said he wasn’t required to stand, and then the mayor got police Chief George A. Brennan involved, the Sentinel noted.
“Chief, ask him to either stand or please escort him out ’til we get through the pledge,” Rees said.
Brennan is seen on camera standing in front of Richardson and asking him, “What are you going to do?”
Richardson opted to leave on his own. He was not arrested, the Sentinel reported.
After the mini dust-up, Rees offered no apologies.
“I just said, ‘Either stand or go in the hallway.’ He wouldn’t,” Rees, 64, told the Sentinel. “It wasn’t premeditated. I just reacted. It hit me. I said it. I gave him an option…Life will go on.”
Interestingly, Richardson has asked city officials on several occasions to allow him to give an invocation, the Sentinel reported.
“As a resident of Winter Garden, I would like our city to be known for its inclusiveness for all points of view and its respect for all individuals,” Richardson wrote in a May email, the Sentinel reported. “Opening up the commission meeting invocations to everyone would be a wonderful step in that direction.”
The Sentinel couldn’t reach Richardson for comment.
Baylor Johnson, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told the paper that the mayor’s actions were wrong.
“People are not required to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance or a sectarian prayer or any kind of compulsory expression just to attend a public meeting,” Johnson told the Sentinel.
[sharequote align=”center”]”I just reacted. It hit me. I said it. I gave him an option…Life will go on.”[/sharequote]
“The problem with telling people they have to participate in any mandatory expression is that it tells people who might have a religious objection or other deeply held belief that, if they don’t go along with what the government tells them to do, they aren’t welcome in this community.”
In addition, the atheist group Freedom from Religion Foundation emailed the mayor and the police chief asking both to explain at the next meeting that citizens are within their rights to stay seated for the pledge, the Sentinel reported.
As it happens, the paper noted, Richardson is a member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which also vowed to attend the commission’s next meeting and stay seated during the invocation and pledge in protest of “these egregious violations of the Constitution,” according to the email, sent by the FFRF’s staff attorney Andrew Seidel.
Here’s the clip of the exchange between Rees and Richardson:
(H/T: Think Progress)