WINTER GARDEN, Fla. - A Central Florida city is re-examining its pledge of allegiance policy after a man refused to stand during a City Commission meeting Thursday.
Winter Garden Mayor John Rees thought it was disrespectful and had him kicked out of the meeting, but the man said that action violated his rights.
The man, identified by the city manager as Joseph Richardson, is an activist with the Freedom From Religion Foundation who monitors the city's opening prayer. He's been in meetings before, but he's never been singled out for not pledging to the flag until now.
As citizens were asked to rise for the pledge, the mayor stopped the proceedings.
Mayor: "Wait a minute. Wait, everyone rise."
Richardson: "Sorry, are you waiting for me?"
Mayor: "Yes, sir."
Richardson: "I don't have to."
Mayor: "I would please appreciate you would rise or you may leave the room."
Richardson was recording the entire exchange on his cellphone from the front row, and it was released publicly by FFRF.
Mayor: "Now sir, please stand when we do the pledge. You don't have to pledge, but please stand. Children have to in school, too."
Richardson: "Yes, and they don't have to either."
Mayor: "It's respect for our country."
Richardson: "I understand, sir."
The mayor then had the police chief escort Richardson from the chambers, saying, "It's just not fair to our troops or people overseas, sir."
"What they did was against the law," said David Williamson, with the Central Florida Freethought Community, a local association of the FFRF. "No one has to stand for the pledge of allegiance. That was settled 71 years ago as far as students were concerned, and I'm not aware of any time in our history when anyone had to stand for the pledge of allegiance. We most certainly want law enforcement and our elected officials to understand the Constitution."
"Well, I'm not sure the city has violated his rights," said City Manager Mike Bollhoefer, who said the city attorney will review the incident to determine if any laws were broken.
Bollhoefer went on to say Richardson has been in meetings before, and has been fighting with the city to change how opening prayers are delivered, to allow for anyone to give the invocation, pursuant to a new Supreme Court ruling.
Bollhoefer said along with the pledge issue, the city will also review how opening prayer is performed and have a determination before the next city meeting.
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