By Rachel Christian
Two civil liberty groups presented a freedom from religion proclamation at City Hall Tuesday night following outcry over a decree with religious overtones read into record by city officials in August.
The controversy surrounding this issue has lasted nearly a month.
On Aug. 7, a group of local religious leaders appeared at a Kissimmee Commission meeting to read a special decree called “40 Days of Celebration of Life, Love, and Family.”
Organizers said the original proclamation and two subsequent decrees - delivered in Spanish by religious leaders - were meant to show solidarity with Puerto Rican residents and Latin American citizens who now call Kissimmee home.
“Members of the City of Kissimmee…invite all residents to join them in this celebration by praying, doing acts of kindness, watching over the safety of neighbors and fellow citizens, volunteering and uniting to help those in need,” the proclamation stated.
It wasn’t long before the city received push back from two watchdog groups – the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union – who both claimed the public decree violated the First Amendment.
By Aug. 14, the ACLU of Florida had written a public letter to Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alveraz asking him to change the language of the proclamation.
“While city employees are within their rights to hold religious beliefs in their personal capacities, such actions are wholly inappropriate and unconstitutional for city employees to incorporate their religious beliefs into any government business,” the ACLU letter stated.
The city quickly backtracked, claiming that the third-party event was not endorsed or sponsored by Kissimmee in any way. Officials also claimed the proclamation was non-denominational, despite guest speakers specifically mentioning religious phrases like God Almighty, Jesus Christ and referring to Kissimmee as “a holy city” during group prayers and songs at the Aug. 7 meeting.
Eventually, Kissimmee’s public information officer issued a press release absolving the city of any connection to the third-party prayer event, which took place Aug. 21.
“The City is not a sponsor of the 40-day event being held by a private group in a a city owned park which is open to all members of the public for free on a first come, first serve basis,” Melissa Zayas-Moreno said in a statement.
That may have seemed like the end of the matter, but on Aug. 21 – the same day as the public prayer event – City Attorney Don Smallwood addressed the issue at the end of a Kissimmee Commission meeting.
He said the presentation was interpreted as promoting a religious and advancing religion over non-religion, and asserted this was not the city’s intention.
Smallwood noted that he wanted to assure citizens that local government did not endorse any religion or promotion of one religion over another.
Smallwood then asked the city manager to read a corrected proclamation into the record.
The language change was touted as a victory by the FFAF and ACLU, who sent out their own press release on the matter the following day.
Yet, the saga continues.
On Sept. 4, the civil liberties groups went to city hall to issue a proclamation of their own and give a presentation on the importance of the Establishment Clause and the separation of church and state.