Atheist blames Winter Garden commissioners for not letting him give invocation, wants inclusion

Teens saying a pre-meai prayer at a California restaurant has sparked an online debate. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

WINTER GARDEN, Fla. — An atheist told WFTV Channel 9 that commissioners in Winter Garden are keeping him from giving the invocation at meetings.

Joseph Richardson said he’s tried for three years and he’s challenging the city to change its policy on how it selects who gives invocations.

Richardson calls the process unfair and says the majority of the invocations are given by Protestant Christians.

"The way they have the policy set up, it allows the commission to prevent people that they don't like or disagree with from doing the invocations," Richardson told Channel 9's Len Kiese.

Not only is Richardson an atheist, he’s the director of Central Florida Freethought Community.

Richardson was thrown out of a commission meeting in 2014 for not standing during the Pledge of Allegiance, which partially prompted the city to take a close look at pre-meeting prayer. Commissioners ultimately voted to keep pre-meeting prayer and develop a database of people to give invocations at monthly meetings.

"I am on the list the city maintains, and I have never been chosen,” Richardson said. “I believe it's intentional (that) they haven't chosen me."

Richardson said other people have given the invocation at commission meetings more than once.

"We'd like to see them have Muslim invocations. We'd like to see them represent everyone who lives in Winter Garden, and we know there are a lot more than just Protestant Christians and a few Jews or Catholics that live in Winter Garden," Richardson said.

Resident Lauren Bennett isn’t buying the argument.

"There's an agenda, and I don't want their agenda pushed on our town,” Bennett said.

"Just respect our heritage.  Respect our traditions.  We've been doing this for many years,” Bennett said.

Bennett said she believes the whole thing is a push to get rid of prayer altogether.

"I even ask, ‘If you don't believe in a God of any kind, why are you worried about fairness of religion?’" Bennett asked.

"What I’m asking for is for fair treatment for everybody,” Richardson responded.

Forty-one people are on that list of people to give invocations at city hall.

The city manager for Winter Garden told WFTV Channel 9 that the mayor and commissioners take turns choosing names from that list. Richardson’s name is on the list, but hasn’t been selected.

It would be up to a city commissioner to bring a change in policy up for discussion. So far, that hasn't happened.

Len Kiese

Len Kiese

I am extremely excited to call Central Florida home.