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."
Josh Israel reported this week on developments in Winter Garden, where the mayor forced an American -- one of the mayor's own constituents -- to leave a public meeting because he declined to stand during the invocation and pledge to the flag.
By order of the police, the local dissenter left as instructed.
The problem, of course, is that the mayor had no idea what he was talking about. Whether an American sits or stands for government-endorsed prayer has nothing to do with the troops overseas. For that matter, children are not legally required to stand for Pledge of Allegiance to the flag.
In fact, there's a fascinating Supreme Court ruling from 1943 called West Virginia v. Barnette in which the court majority said the exact opposite. Writing for the court, Justice Robert Jackson warned, "[T]hose who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard."
In light of the Winter Garden controversy, local officials yesterday adopted a new, more inclusive policy: the city commission will open their meetings with "a moment of silence rather than a prayer," and it will be clear that "no one has to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance" if they don't want to.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* An anti-gay group called "American Decency" reportedly plans to hold a protest tomorrow at the Dallas Cowboy's home opener because the team signed Michael Sam, an openly gay player, to its practice squad (thanks to my colleague Kent Jones for the heads-up).
* This is a case worth watching: "A Minnesota town is being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for denying a zoning permit to a mosque. Members of the Abu Huraira Islamic Center claim they were unconstitutionally denied the permit by the city of St. Anthony in 2012. On Wednesday, the DOJ agreed."
* Pope Francis this week is trying to encourage Iraq's beleaguered Christians, under threat from Islamic militants, "saying they are the 'heart' of the church and that the church is proud of them."
* And it's amazing what can be found in an old library: "A recently re-discovered papyrus amulet dating from the 6th century may offer a fascinating glimpse into early Christian life. Lecturer Roberta Mazza encountered the 1,500-year-old document while researching in the University of Manchester's John Rylands Library. As a classicist and historian, Mazza told HuffPost, she quickly recognized its significance."