A nontheism group is taking the City of Orlando to task for holding an "overtly religious oath-taking ceremony."
On March 8, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation said it contacted the city about the Jan. 11 event, in which incumbent Mayor Buddy Dyer and three city commissioners were sworn in.
The ceremony included a Christian invocation and benediction, according to FFRF. The invocation began with "Our heavenly father, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" and ended with "In Christ's name, Shalom and Amen," FFRF said.
In a letter to Dyer, the FFRF reminded the mayor his city is "constitutionally required to remain neutral on matters of religion." The letter asked for assurances that the city won't allow religious rituals or prayers during future public events.
"The city's inclusion of prayer in the oath of office ceremony gives the impression that the city supports and endorses religion over nonreligion," Andrew Seidel, staff attorney for FFRF, wrote to Dyer. "This sends the message to members of the audience who are nonadherents 'that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, full members of the political community,' to quote the U.S. Supreme Court."
Seidel asked Dyer for a written response detailing the city's plans to make sure there would not be another overtly religious public ceremony.
Dyer hasn't responded yet, and on March 9 city officials were still working on their response to the FFRF, according to a report in the Orlando Sentinel. However, officials told the Sentinel they're confident that they're following the law, citing a 2014 Supreme Court decision that upheld the legality of opening government meetings with prayers.
"As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of 'God save the United States and this honorable court' at the opening of this court's sessions," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court's majority decision, according to USA Today.
The city already has a written policy on prayers, Dyer's deputy chief of staff, Heather Fagan, told the Sentinel. She said the policy is in place to make sure all citizens feel welcome.
“I’m proud to say that recent invocations have been given by rabbis, Islamic Imams and other diverse spiritual representatives,” Fagan wrote in an email to the newspaper.