A Florida mayor ejected one of his constituents from a City Commission meeting on Thursday because he declined to stand during the invocation and pledge to the flag at the beginning of the meeting.
Winter Garden Mayor John Rees, a nonpartisan official leading an Orlando suburb of about 37,000, was caught on video demanding that an audience member stand for a prayer, which thanked God for “allowing us to live in a country where we’re free to believe, think, and pray.”
The audience member responded, “I don’t believe I have to do that, thank you.” After the prayer, Rees again instructed the constituent, identified by the Orlando Sentinel as Joseph Richardson, to stand for the pledge to the flag as “children have to in school.” Richardson again politely declined.
“Okay. I asked him to either stand or please be escorted out as we do the Pledge,” Rees says in the video. “It’s just not fair to our troops and people overseas, sir.”
City police then enforced the mayor’s demand and Richardson left.
Watch the video:
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, the CFFC’s national parent group, in a letter Friday, accused Rees and the chief of police of perpetrating “several serious First Amendment violations.”
The First Amendment guarantees religious freedom and speech. Additionally, section 3 of Florida’s state constitution explicitly demands a strict separation between the state and its subdivisions and religion. While schools do require that the pledge be recited in public school classrooms, Rees is incorrect on the requirements. Students have the right to sit quietly if they do not wish to participate. In a 1942 case on this exact question, the U.S. Supreme Court held that students cannot be coerced into reciting or standing for the pledge. Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote in his majority opinion that “if there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Rees told the Sentinel that because Richardson has previously come and left after the prayer and invocation, he believes “he doesn’t come to the meetings because he cares about the city.” Though the American Civil Liberties Union also objected to the mayor’s actions, Rees so far seems unconcerned: “It wasn’t premeditated. I just reacted. It hit me. I said it. I gave him an option. …Life will go on.”