by Jeremy Morrison
Plenty of people packed Pensacola City Council chambers Thursday for the invocation being given to open the council’s meeting. Plenty more stood praying in a cluster out front of city hall.
David Sohur, the individual giving the invocation on behalf of the Satanic Temple of West Florida, stood at the front of the meeting room, cloaked in a hooded black robe. Around the gallery members of the public whispered prayers.
“I’m gonna leave,” gasped former mayoral candidate Donna Clark as she hit the back door.
As Sohur launched into his invocation that council had been dreading since before last week’s special meeting on the subject, the public’s prayers grew louder until they galvanized into a Lord’s Prayer shoutdown. From within his hood, Sohur complained to the city council about the interruption.
“May I ask you too keep it to a low volume?” requested Council President Charles Bare.
“No!” the gallery shouted back.
The council president explained that the invocation would have to go on unfettered. He told the public that he would have them removed from the chambers if this were not possible.
“We’re not moving!” a man shouted at Bare.
For a brief moment Pensacola police officers moved in, half-enforcing Bare’s half-threat of removal. A standoff with one woman near the lectern ended peacefully enough, with the woman agreeing to go back to her seat.
“Alright, alright,” said Kelley Seward, “I’ll give you my word, I’ll be quite.”
Once Sohur returned to his invocation, the prayers also returned, but this time remained at a whisper. Floating just underneath the marathon-length invocation.
The invocation itself was a droning recitation of vague advice. It spoke of the need to “reason our solutions with agnosticism” and how individuals should “be judged for their concrete actions” and something about “illusory categories” and “arbitrary social norms.” And something towards the end about “hail Satan.”
Minutes into the invocation, Sohur, who operates a singing telegram business, began to drift into song, until eventually his voice soared from beneath his hood into a full operatic baritone. Later, during the meeting’s public comment forum, one man would compare his singing to that of Harry Connick, Jr.
“Sweet Jesus!” a woman in the gallery cried out as Sohur wrapped up his invocation.
Following such a spectacle, Bare attempted to jump back on track — “Will you please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance” — but the public in attendance wasn’t ready to move on to the regular agenda items quite yet. They spent the public forum explaining to council how they had “failed the citizens” and how “elections come around.” They prayed over the council, asking it to have the wisdom to know “what’s right, what’s wrong and what’s going over the edge.”
When Sohur took to his three minutes of public speaking time, he laid in to the public in attendance.
“Frankly, I pity all you people,” he said, turning to the gallery. “People live in such fear that people have to scream over me.”
He also criticized the city council for not having a policy in place to better manage invocations, one which would lay out who could offer up an invocation and when they could do so. “What I’m asking you to do is set some damn rules!” Sohur said, slamming his hand on the lectern.
Bare agreed that the current system — one, he noted wryly, that has seen Sohur give three invocations over the past few years — should be looked at.