Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern sounds off on atheist debate

Rob Curry, Executive Director of the group, said atheists are estimated to be nearly 10 percent of the population, and probably the same percent come before the council each week.  He said, " I think it's important to respect those citizens who do not share the belief in a supernatural entity or the idea that we can plead to a higher being, or in this case, this morning it was to a father, some kind of metaphorical, or maybe someone believes it's a literal father in heaven to bless the council."

Citing Chairman Thomas Scott's vote in expanding the rights of transgendered persons back in November, Curry said it was time for him and other council members to consider protecting atheists from discrimination as well.

Sandra Smith said she understood that the invocation is considered a tradition, but that change should also be honored.  Referencing her background in the computer industry, she discussed an anecdote between Apple computer founder Steve Jobs and former Pepsi executive John Scully.  She said Jobs had said to Scully when the latter was interviewing for a job at Apple over 25 years ago that, "'Do you want to sell colored sugar water the rest of your life, or do you want to be a part of changing the world?'  He took the job."

After the last speaker spoke on the issue, Councilwoman Mary Mulhern became the first member of the board to speak publicly about the topic.  She apologized for the fact that no one on council had responded to their pleas to remove the invocation, and said she wanted to assure them that the city's legal department and members of the council were "investigating possible changes to our procedures."

Back in 2004, three members of the council at that time - Kevin White, Rose Ferlita and Mary Alvarez - walked out of the chamber in vivid display of disdain when an atheist who Councilman John Dingfelder invited to give the invocation began to speak.

Mulhern correctly said that nobody on the current council had done so.  Continuing her monologue, she then seemed to raise some eyebrows by  recounting  a story about a parent in the chamber that told her when his toddler asked him about religion, said, "' The only thing you need to know about religion is never criticize anyone's religion, because if you do they might kill you.'"

She then took on both the atheists and their critics, saying that those who mocked other's beliefs "are not going to help your cause.  And to come as a religious person and condemn people who don't have belief is not going to help you either."

But she may have been speaking only for herself when she said that the Council may opt in the future only for a moment of silence.

At the end of her comments, Council Chair Thomas Scott, who is also a pastor at the 34th Street Church of God in Tampa, interjected, saying he didn't want to get into any discussion on the matter, since it was not on the council's agenda.  "Whatever the Councilwoman wants to do in her office, she can do in her office."

Speaking to CL Thursday afternoon, Curry said he hopes to have a chance to meet individually with council members to directly inform them of what he says is the discrimination and lack of respect that atheists contend with.

For the third Tampa City Council meeting in the young year, members of the public who oppose starting Council meetings with an invocation again spoke out against the practice today, but for the first time a member of the Council publicly reacted to their concerns.

Two weeks ago, the group Atheists of Florida came to the council chambers to denounce the practice which kicks off each council meeting , a practice that sporadically has been a source of controversy over the years.  But nobody from the council responded.

Six people who oppose starting government meetings with invocations pleaded with City Council members Thursday to end the practice.

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