The move reversed a policy implemented by former Mayor Bob Cortes and produced hope among atheist groups that other symbols, including the cross former Mayor Durso fought to keep in city hall, might be removed next.
Newly elected Longwood Mayor Ben Paris, along with the entire Longwood, FL city commission, voted to no longer open meetings with prayer, preferring a moment of silence instead. The unanimous vote occurred Monday evening at the normally scheduled city commission meeting, on the eve of the National Religious Freedom Day commemorating Virginia’s landmark adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s religious freedom statute, which became the basis for the First Amendment of the Constitution prohibiting government from restricting the free exercise of religion. The day is commemorated by religious groups nationwide who are concerned about what they feel is an assault on religious freedom by governments and social progressives.
The move to ban prayers from commission meetings reverses a policy enacted by former Longwood Mayor Bob Cortes, who led the fight to allow prayers to be offered at the outset of council meetings. Cortes, who currently serves in the Florida House of Representatives, blasted the move Tuesday, describing himself as “disappointed” in a statement on Facebook:
“Disappointed that the Longwood City Commission decided to undo one of my proud achievements as Mayor,” Cortes wrote. “Praying before each meeting as we still do in the Florida House. I am proud to say I pray every time for wisdom. Prayers should never be substituted.”
This is not the first time that religious expressions have been under attack in the small Seminole County city. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) recently took issue with a cross which was displayed in city hall and tried to have it removed. Then commissioner Joe Durso resisted the attempt and argued it was appropriate. The effort to remove the cross ultimately failed.
The move banning prayer was celebrated by Joseph Richardson, from the Central Florida Free-Thought, who fought against mayor Durso to remove the cross from city hall. “It’s extremely inclusive. No one is ‘outside’ the idea of having a moment of silence.”
Last November when Mayor Durso moved on he was replaced by Mayor Ben Paris, who won the mayorship after allies Drummond, Morgan and Shoemaker won their respective elections to the city council. The election was celebrated by the Longwood area progressive group Action Alliance for Progress, who claimed credit for the victory in one of the county’s more leftward leaning cities, casting it as a defeat of the Seminole County Republican Party.
In a message to congratulate the group’s activists who helped to get out the vote, the AAfP wrote that the victories of Drummond, Morgan and Shoemaker represented the group’s “success in bringing progressive change to Seminole County and the State of Florida.” Striking prayer from the meetings is the first significant progressive objective enacted by Mayor Ben Paris and the new slate of commissioners.
Atheists groups are celebrating the victory, with one “Friendly Atheist” blogger even celebrating the fact that conservatives are “fuming” and calling the reversal a “smart decision”.
Fights over religious expressions in local governments are hardly uncommon. If the city of Longwood were to reverse course and reinstitute the opportunity for prayer to open meetings, it would not be without precedent. In 2015, the city of Winter Garden, which had banned prayer to open meetings, changed course and voted to reinstate it. The city had decided to nix prayer in favor of the Pledge of Allegiance, with its Mayor and also then Commissioner Bobby Olszewski objecting. Six months later a 4-1 vote was cast to allow prayer again.
The move does not appear to have satiated its strongest proponents. The same “Friendly Atheist” blogger and activist referred to the lack of success in removing the cross last year, and then remarked: “but that was with the last mayor and a different set of commissioners. Maybe the revised and upgraded commission will tackle this problem next.”