East Tenn. woman seeks apology after ‘secular invocation’ cut short at city meeting

Aleta Ledendecker
Aleta Ledendecker

OAK RIDGE (WATE) – An East Tennessee woman says her secular invocation at the Oak Ridge City Council was cut short earlier this week. She is now urging officials to keep religion out of their proceedings.

Oak Ridge city leaders say the purpose of the invocation is to draw to a higher power in helping make judgment calls, whether that’s God, Allah, science, wisdom, fairness or whichever you believe.

Aleta Ledendecker says she was just asking for three minutes. The Freedom From Religion Foundation says cutting Ledendecker’s speech short was a Constitutional violation.

“There just needs to be a fair representation of all citizens,” she said.

Ledendecker, who is from Blount County, was giving the invocation at this Monday’s city council meeting in Oak Ridge. She was representing the Rationalists of East Tennessee group. She’s given the invocation at city council meetings in Lenoir City as well as Clinton.

More than two minutes into her invocation on Monday, she was stopped by Mayor Warren Gooch. Then the meeting went right into the Pledge of Allegiance.

“I was shocked. That had never happened before,” said Ledendecker.

Web Extra: Video of the Oak Ridge City Council meeting

The Oak Ridge City Clerk who says there’s no written clause on how long invocations are supposed to be, but speakers are told to keep it under three minutes. Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson says a timer was never set and City Council is not obligated to sit in.

“I had made a decision ahead of time that I would be stepping out during the invocation. That was a decision I made based on a concern it might be contrary to my religious beliefs and I wanted to respect that organization’s right to have their say,” said City Council Member Trina Baughn.

To date there are 12 people already scheduled to do the invocation for the rest of the year at Oak Ridge City Council meetings.

“Public forum is not the same standing as giving the invocation at the beginning of the meeting,” said Ledendecker.

Freedom From Religion Foundation has since written a letter asking for Ledendecker to get an apology or a second chance to speak during the invocation.

“The City Council must ensure that your invocation policy does not discriminate against atheists and freethinkers,” Freedom From Religion Foundation Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne wrote in a letter to Mayor Warren Gooch. “Additionally, a public apology to Ms. Ledendecker for the City Council’s discriminatory treatment of her is clearly warranted.”

Web Extra: Read the full speech

Oak Ridge leaders say all are welcome. “I understand and appreciate the dialogue that’s going on. I really wish people were more concerned with the things we deliberated with during the meeting,” said Council Member Baughn.

Mayor Warren Gooch has not responded to a request for comment. The city manager says it is the mayor’s job to control the meeting, business is the main goal, and the purpose of the podium is to not stress one religion or another.

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