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Atheist group president ejected from meeting after mayor takes issue with T-shirt

By Staff | Jan 24, 2011

By DREW WINCHESTER, dwinchester@breezenewspapers.com
The right to free speech became a heated exchange between Mayor John Sullivan and a non-profit atheist group when one of their members was removed from council chambers.
Atheists of Florida, Inc. President John Kieffer was escorted from chambers by three police officers when the mayor took exception to his shirt, which held what Sullivan felt was a message that violated council rules.
The T-shirt read: “One Nation, Indivisible”
Sullivan previously asked the Tampa-based non-profit group to not display its shirts, turn them inside out if they wanted to speak, or cover them with a jacket.
Sullivan said they were disobeying his wishes and the rules of the chamber.
“They just don’t want to obey the rules. They think they can make their own rules,” Sullivan said.
Kieffer said the rule about messages on T-shirts had not been clarified or addressed at previous meetings, and he was in his right.
“I thought it was uncalled for to be escorted out,” Kieffer said. “I followed the rule, which has not been changed … the rule was not addressed.”
The group originally came to council chambers when the mayor wanted to mount a copy of the Ten Commandments in City Hall.
Kieffer called atheists a “hated minority”, and said the actions of the mayor did nothing but support that feeling.
“This is America, we can believe whatever the hell we want to,” Kieffer said.
Sullivan likened the T-shirts to a “commercial,” and felt the group, or any group that displays messages in council chambers, were simply bullying the dais.
“We shouldn’t allow any group to force us to abide by their rules … we shouldn’t let an outside group dictate the rules,” Sullivan said.
Kieffer, and all of the members of the Atheists of Florida, were eventually allowed to speak in their T-shirts after Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz made a motion to allow them to the podium for public comment.
“They should not be prevented from speaking, regardless of their attire,” he said.
Councilmember Kevin McGrail said denying them the ability to speak was “throwing the First Amendment out of the window.”
“They have the right to say their piece in a public setting … I don’t think their T-shirts are particularly offensive,” McGrail said.
Councilmember Pete Brandt said he was personally offended when the members of the group did not say the words “Under God” during the pledge of allegiance.
Kieffer said the original version of the Pledge did not contain the phrase, which was added in 1954.
“We’re just trying to create a dialogue,” Kieffer said.