Atheist challenges mayor over prayer in Lula

Feb. 14—The common custom of saying prayer before the start of a meeting sparked controversy at a Lula work session Monday.

Resident Joseph Johnson expressed his grievance to council after he was denied by Mayor Joe Thomas from leading invocation with an "atheist" — or non-Christian — prayer.

After calling for Thomas' resignation, Johnson also denounced the mayor for comments he made at a GMA-held sexual harassment training seminar in January.

Citing an article published by The Times on Jan. 24 regarding residents' efforts to recall Thomas, Johnson accused the mayor of endorsing Christianity as an established religion of the city, as well as alienating people with secular and non-Christian beliefs. Johnson said he plans to file a lawsuit against the city on the basis of religious discrimination, and he asked that officials eliminate prayer from future meetings.

"(In the article), you referenced it was your decision to start with the Lord's Prayer," Johnson told Thomas. "I asked you tonight, before the meeting, if you would entertain me giving a non-Christian prayer for invocation, and you denied that."

"You have directly endorsed, multiple times, one religion over another," he said. "That is a violation of the Establishment Clause of my First Amendment rights...I would ask the council that, if we are not going to allow secular prayers for invocation, we stop prayer altogether — as it is offensive if we're endorsing one over the others...I will be filing a formal complaint, as well as a civil suit."

Johnson confirmed to The Times Tuesday that he's filed a formal complaint with the City of Lula against Thomas for "religious discrimination." The complaint was forwarded to the city's law firm for review.

In an audio recording Johnson provided to The Times, Thomas, who could not be reached for comment, is heard denying Johnson's request to lead the invocation with a non-Christian prayer before the start of Monday's meeting, first mentioning that he prefers to give the prayer himself.

When Johnson remarks that the mayor allowed resident Roy Hall to lead the invocation with a Christian prayer at a Dec. 19 meeting, Thomas responds by stating, "That was the one I didn't do, but I sort of take that seriously to me — that's one that I don't ask somebody to do that because I'm willing to do that, myself. That's one of those things — it's just me."

Johnson said he's in contact with the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Asked whether a city official can legally deny non-denominational prayers before a meeting, City Attorney Joey Homans said, "The city will control the agenda...I'll just have to see the specific issues that were brought up by the speaker of public comment (and) what his specific issues are."

In the 2014 case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that holding prayer at town meetings didn't violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, stating, "Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian."