Lakeland mayor allows prayer at public meetings - FOX 13 News

Lakeland mayor allows prayer at public meetings

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LAKELAND (FOX 13) -

The U.S. Supreme Court just handed down a decision on an issue that created an uproar in Polk County a few years ago.

The justices said it's acceptable to have prayer at a public meeting.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on public prayer is a Godsend of sorts for the Lakeland City Commission and many other proponents. The high court ruled that their meetings can start with a prayer as long as there is no attempt to convert others.

"I believe that's the way it should have been," said Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs. "I believe those are the principles that this country was founded upon and we were right."

Now Wiggs wants to right what he sees as a wrong. A few years ago, Lakeland commission meetings started with a prayer. The Atheists of Florida challenged that.

Commissioners moved the prayer to before the gavel sounded. Now Wiggs wants the prayer to become part of the meeting once again.

"This is a faith community, a community that believes in God," said Mayor Wiggs. "We may not all believe in the same God, but we believe in a higher power, and in many ways this is defined by that belief."

The vote was close, 5-4, but not surprising considering the conservative majority. Justice Kennedy didn't pull any punches.

He wrote, "if someone doesn't like the prayer, he or she can leave the room."

"Telling us to leave the room makes us unequal people," said EllenBeth Wachs, prominent atheist activist.  "It makes us feel less than. It tells us you don't have an equal part in your government."

Wachs and other atheists spent a lot of time and energy in their battle against public prayer in Polk County, protesting, even getting arrested.

Wachs said it was all worth it.

"People who would have never said the word 'atheist' were saying the word 'atheist' and having conversations they would never have had. And that is a win in any respects," Wachs said.

People on the other side also say they won because they got what they were praying for.

Lakeland's mayor is solidly behind starting commission meetings with a prayer. He is going to ask other commissioners for their support on Monday.

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