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Florida Atheists Sue Over Prayers at City Meetings

A Central Florida atheist organization has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Lakeland over opening city commission meetings with prayer.

The lawsuit comes after the Atheists of Florida voiced specific outrage over the use of the name "Jesus Christ." An April 5 meeting became heated after a citizen got into a yelling match with the atheists, prompting commissioners to recess the meeting.

Courts have ruled invocations at meetings of government bodies are constitutional under some conditions. Lakeland’s policy has been ruled constitutional by the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which stipulated that governments must make a reasonable effort to incorporate all religious faiths.

But Atheists of Florida argues the city isn't following the court's guidelines.

"Lakeland clearly has Christian-based prayers. They've designated this city as a Christian city. They've totally excluded any other types of religious or nonreligious views," EllenBeth Wachs, director of its Lakeland chapter told TheLedger.com.

The lawsuit contends that the Lakeland policy violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The group also alleges that while attending commission meetings that they were made to feel uncomfortable because they did not stand during the invocation and omitted the "under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance.

TheLedger.com contributed to this report.