County commission invocation challenged

Wisconsin foundation contacts board at request of local atheist couple

Jo-Ann Mullen and her husband Earle, members of Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers, say they want to use gentle persuasion to change the Mesa County Commission’s practice of giving an invocation before its public meetings.

“We don’t want to be confrontational,” Earle Mullen said. “Religion should be a private matter.”

The two appeared Monday before the commission, asking for the county’s response to a Nov. 12 letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The couple contacted the foundation, which is based in Madison, Wis.,  asking it to pressure the county into changing its pre-meeting invocation to a non-secular event or eliminate it altogether, Earle Mullen said.

“Prayers are unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive,” according to the foundation’s letter to the county. “The board’s practice of leading Christian-based prayers before meetings is illegal.”

The board began invocations in 2005. Before each Monday and Tuesday meeting, a member of the board will ask the audience to rise for the invocation, adding that people may participate if they wish. Board members take turns saying the invocation, which sometimes includes invoking the name of Jesus Christ.

County attorney Lyle Dechant said he is formulating a response to the foundation.
Commissioner Steve Acquafresca said he has seen the letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“It tends to suggest that someone could come forward with some sort of a challenge,” he said.
Acquafresca said he has brought the subject up with commissioners Janet Rowland and Craig Meis. Acquafresca said he will meet with Dechant to discuss the issue and push for another meeting on the subject early in 2009 with his fellow board members.

“We should talk about it,” Acquafresca said.

Rowland seems to have dug her heels in on the issue.

“Mandating non-sectarian prayer is itself unconstitutional,” said Rowland, arguing that what the foundation would have the county do is illegal.

She added that neither Mesa County nor she would back down from a fight over the issue.


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