© 2022 | WUWF Public Media
11000 University Parkway
Pensacola, FL 32514
850 474-2787
NPR for Florida's Great Northwest
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Local News

Santa Rosa Commission Candidates Tackle Invocation Issue


  The debate over the long-standing practice of opening local government meetings with an invocation has intensified recently after the Pensacola City Council allowed a representative of a local satanic group to offer the prayer.

The issue got national attention. But, locals are also watching closely and candidates for the Santa Rosa County Commission had to deal with it at a recent political forum.

Generally, the commission candidates wanted to avoid the kind of raucous scene faced by the Pensacola City Council and Council President Charles Bare last Thursday night, as dozens of outraged residents loudly expressed their opposition to the invocation by David Suhor, who represented the Satanic Temple of Northwest Florida and provided the visual theatre of being dressed in a black hooded robe.

Eventually, Suhor was allowed to proceed, as those who remained in the gallery continued to chant Christian prayers.

The issue was raised at a forum by the Santa Rosa Tea Party Patriots just days before the invocation showdown in Pensacola. Their question went like this, “What will you do as a county commissioner if approached by any group, other than Christians, to pray over a BCC meeting?”

I would probably call for a five minute recess and ask the rest of the commissioners to go outside for a minute,” said Aubrey Penton, a No Party Affiliation candidate for the District 3 seat. “We’d go outside and pray and then we’d go back in.”

Marvin Fowler, Sr., who previously served one term on the board, offered a short, direct response for the conservative Republican group.

 “I think it’ll be an easy solution,” Fowler said. “Change the procedure; let the commissioners pray.”

The District 3 incumbent Republican Don Salter sided with the Christian view of the issue, while also pointing out the constitutional challenges of that stance referencing a 2014 Supreme Court ruling allows prayer so long as no one religion is advanced or disparaged.

“I would do everything I can to prevent it,” said Salter. “There are a lot of legalities associated with it. If you choose not to allow it, you’re going to get caught up in many lawsuits. But, I would do everything I can not to allow that to happen.”

Santa Rosa County Commission candidate Mark Cotton generally agreed with Salter.

“I would like to stand my ground as a Christian,” said Cotton, who also referenced his own experience with a non-Christian Wiccan group when he served on the Santa Rosa Board of Adjustments. He said code required equal treatment.

“Ultimately, it failed and there were all sorts of threats about (it),” Cotton said. “But, I think it’s so much of that going on in the nation now with what happened to our school board and tax payers liable for many, many millions of dollars if you don’t comply with what they want; not that I would want to comply.”

As for what happened to the Santa Rosa School Board, it was sued in 2008 by the ACLU of Florida over the promotion of prayer in public schools and at school events. The case was eventually settled, but cost the district 400 thousand dollars in legal fees.

Back to the question of what each would do if elected to the board and a non-Christian group asked to give the invocation, District 1 Republican candidate Sam Parker offered a more conciliatory response. Parker called for more compromise and acceptance of religious diversity.

“You know the men that came over here and fought 240 years ago for our Independence, fought for freedom of religion,” Parker said. “I feel that we’re going to have people; we’re going to have Muslims, we many, many different religious views. What Christianity wants us to do is to stand strong and be a shining light and to not speak hatred to other groups and that is how we have to operate as a government.”

Locally, this battle over religious prayer at government meetings is likely to continue, as non-Christian groups seek to change or eliminate the practice and local elected officials hold firm.  For example, a proposal for a moment of silence before Pensacola City Council meetings and Council’s recently held special meeting on invocation policy both went nowhere.