According to the Sun-Sentinel, a 51-year-old activist named Joseph Richardson was kicked from a Winter Garden, FL City Commission meeting by Mayor John Rees after he refused to stand during an invocation and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance last Thursday. Reports indicate that Richardson is a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community, a group working to “keep religion out of government in Central Florida.” Officials say that he has protested the invocation and pledge at previous meetings.
To kick off the meeting, Mayor John Rees ordered citizens in the room to stand while a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance were recited. Richardson refused. As Commissioner Bobby Olszewski began offering his prayer, Mayor Rees ordered him to stop and indicated that the prayer and pledge would continue after everyone in the room took their feet. As the only individual not standing, Richardson said, “Sorry, are you waiting for me?” After Mayor Rees acknowledged that he was, Richardson replied, “I don’t have to.”
After the prayer, Mayor Rees took a harder line, ordering Richardson to stand during the pledge or be ejected from the room. When Richardson continued his protest, Mayor Rees said to Winter Garden Police Chief George Brennan, “Chief, ask him to either stand or please escort him out till we get through the pledge.” In the above-embedded video, Chief Brennan can be seen approaching Richardson, asking, “What are you going to do?” Richardson then left the meeting.
Mayor Rees, who felt that Richardson’s protest was “not fair to our troops,” defended his actions by saying, “It wasn’t premeditated. I just reacted. It hit me. I said it. I gave him an option. … Life will go on.”
In the past, Richardson had emailed complaints to officials about the inclusion of a prayer at city meetings, saying, “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.” American Civil Liberties Union of Florida representative Baylor Johnson told the Sun-Sentinel, “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.”
According to the Facebook page of the Central Florida Freethought Community, the group intends to stage a larger protest at an upcoming September 11 Winter Garden City Commission meeting.