POMPANO BEACH, Fla. – Before the prayer at the start of every Pompano Beach commission meeting, Commissioner Barry Dockswell walks off the dais, taking a stand on principle.
"I believe in a clear separation of church and state," said Dockswell.
The commissioner is now calling for an end to the decades-long prayer practice after a blogger has requested to give a farcical Satanic invocation at city hall, claiming he has as much right to lead a prayer as the local clergy.
"My hope is the is the commission will see the wisdom of getting out of this denominational thicket that we've gotten ourselves into," Dockswell said.
But he was the lone no vote at the July 14 commission meeting on a resolution to establish clear rules on who can and cannot lead a prayer at City Hall.
Mayor Lamar Fisher supports the invocations and said the new rules will protect the commission from stunt artists.
"I think the resolution we just passed protects that and gives that guidelines so it doesn't become a sham," said Fisher.
"It tries to establish that it's a bona fide religious clergyman that will give the invocation," Dockswell said.
The blogger, Timothy "Chaz" Stevens, is anything but a bona fide clergyman. He's an often vulgar public gadfly and church and state activist who hounds local government officials.
On his blog, he often attacks his targets in a very personal manner, with a penchant for photoshopping obscene symbols on their faces.
Notably, Stevens, who routinely refers to himself as a genius, was arrested in 2004 on a charge of violating a domestic violence injunction after a woman claimed he stalked her and threw feces on her porch, among other transgressions. Stevens refused comment for this story.
Stevens, whose efforts are supported by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, formed what he calls the First Pompano Beach of Satan, with an address that comes up to a box in a Parcels Plus store on Atlantic Boulevard. He has advertised the church on Yelp and listed it in the Yellow Pages, a requirement of the city.
The big snag may come from other requirements including one that the church have a discernible "congregation" and that it be a registered 501-C3 non-profit corporation.
Dockswell said that as absurd as the blogger's pursuit may be, it raises questions about the separation of church and state that should be addressed and could possibly lead to expensive litigation. He said he is searching for a compromise with his fellow elected officials, including a proposal that they open each meeting with a moment of silence and reflection.
When he raised that idea at the last meeting, he didn't even get a second.
"If we could just have something that everybody could feel reasonably good about, I wouldn't have to walk off the dais every time there's an invocation given," he said. "I believe we could all construct language where we could all come together for a common purpose in the city."
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