Bill Grant Column January 27, 2009
The culture wars in Grand Junction and Mesa County
With both Mesa County and the city of Grand Junction embroiled in conflicts involving First Amendment issues, our area has succeeded in attracting the attention of the nation’s primary organization of moral police. Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which bills itself as “a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faiths,” is closely monitoring both the prayer issue involving the County Commissioners, and the attempts by the Grand Junction Planning Commission, operating under the City Council, to prevent a strip club from locating in the city.
The county seems to be drifting into a lawsuit on the prayer issue. A serious misstep by City Council could involve the city in an equally unprofitable legal conflict with the owners of the proposed “gentlemen’s club.”
Even though City Attorney John Shaver has advised the Planning Commission that Supreme Court rulings make topless bars legal under the First Amendment as a form of expressive entertainment, the planning commissioners are doing their best to prevent the club from getting the permits it needs to build and operate.
Last summer they denied the club a permit on a finding that the entire city is a single neighborhood, making even a remote industrial zone incompatible with an adult entertainment establishment. This recommendation was overturned by City Council on appeal, sending the matter back to the commission for reconsideration.
After the zoning issue was resolved in favor of the club, the commission tried a new ploy, recommending against a liquor license for the club on grounds that a business selling alcohol is inappropriate in an industrial zone. Again City Council has remanded the case back to the planning commission, which is no doubt busily thinking up its next Hail Mary pass.
At either point when the issue was before the City Council, it could simply have reversed the planning commission’s decision and ended the matter. But in a classic case of buck passing, both times it has turned the decision back to the planners, apparently in an attempt to force them to make a recommendation the Council can affirm. That way, individual Council members can claim they were only accepting a planning commission recommendation, not deciding the case based on their own values.
City Council needs to end this farce rather than prolong it. Not doing so simply plays to the grandstanding by the moral police on the planning commission, while encouraging their followers, who can be seen parading outside the courthouse during hearings, to believe they might have some influence on the final decision.
By tolerating this evasion of responsibility by the planning commission, the City Council is prolonging the situation needlessly. If they intend not to award the liquor license the club has applied for, Council needs to make that decision clear so the owners can file the inevitable lawsuit. Hopefully it will not come to that.
The county commissioners are even closer to precipitating a lawsuit over the issue of sectarian prayer at their meetings. Despite some largely cosmetic changes in their opening prayer ritual, the commissioners are very vulnerable to a lawsuit to challenge sectarian prayers at their meetings.
Commissioner Janet Rowland’s insistence on including references to Jesus in her prayers seems almost a dare to those opposing the conflation of religion and government, suggesting that she would benefit politically from the exposure such a trial could bring her.
Her “base” no doubt would hold her in high esteem for defending the faith, even if loss was certain.
With all the problems facing the community, the last thing either the city or the county needs is the distraction of becoming ground zero in the religious wars between conservative Christians and advocates of a clear separation of church and state. Even the unlikely chance of winning such a case would not justify the expense in time, money, and distraction from city and county business that would result.
Both city and county elected leaders should move quickly and decisively to resolve these conflicts now before they escalate further. The serious business of guiding the community through the growing recession needs their full attention.