Atheist group objects to prayer, wants officials to ‘get to work’
A satanist may offer the invocation at an upcoming Grand Junction City Council meeting, the result of the city’s policy to allow any religious group to participate in prayer at the opening of its sessions.
Though members of the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers have participated in the invocation a few times since it protested the city’s practice of allowing predominantly Christian participants to conduct prayer at the meetings, it’s the first time a satanist plans on delivering the invocation.
Scott Iles, a member of the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers, was selected to give the invocation at the Aug. 2 City Council meeting, according to Greg LeBlanc, assistant to the city manager. LeBlanc said Iles has not yet confirmed he is participating, and if he doesn’t do so by today, the council will defer to a moment of silence. It’s not clear whether Iles can transfer his invocation to another participant at this time. City Attorney John Shaver was unavailable for comment Thursday.
Iles, a Grand Junction resident, confirmed he intends to offer his slot to a local satanist, though he said when he put his name in the drawing he was “willing to make a point myself” until he and others in his organization came up with an alternate plan. “We came up with the idea that it would be really cool if (satanists) did the invocation just to shake things up,” he said. “I’m an atheist myself and I don’t believe that the invocation should have any part to play in city government or any kind of government.”
Anne Landman of the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers declined to reveal the satanist’s identity at this time but said he is currently involved in starting a Colorado branch of the Satanic Temple.
The invocation has traditionally been performed following the Pledge of Allegiance, opening the council meeting. It’s usually a short prayer or a moment of silence if the participant didn’t show up or there wasn’t one arranged.
It’s not clear what a satanist invocation will entail, as the city doesn’t have a specific policy for the content of the invocation or time limits.
“We don’t know,” Landman said. “There is no limit whatsoever on this part of the meeting. They could have someone coming and talking in tongues and swinging a chicken.”
Religious freedom activists have used elected government boards in recent years to illustrate the constitutional requirement that requires them to allow all prayer forms if they allow one at all — a free exercise of religion without endorsing one type in particular.
In July 2016 in Florida, a satanist named David Suhor arrived in a black hooded shroud to deliver his invocation in front of the Pensacola City Council. An online video of the invocation shows protesters filling the council chambers, praying loudly to prevent him from delivering his address.
In the video, the council president asks the crowd to settle down and a man standing in the front row refuses, saying, “No, he’s going to pronounce curses on us and you.”
Police removed disruptive protesters and others remained in the council chambers, some holding Bibles and producing a low murmur of prayer as Suhor began to sing his invocation. It was over within minutes.
The local atheists and freethinkers group, formed in 2007, first asked the city to stop the tradition of prayer at meetings in 2008, Landman said. At the time, a group called the Grand Valley Ministerial Alliance had organized the invocations, she said. After that, the city instated a lottery through the city clerk’s office that allows anyone to submit their name for participation.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has urged a strict separation of church and state and maintains that it’s inappropriate for public officials to schedule prayer at government functions. “Without going to court, citizens and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have successfully halted sectarian prayer by local governments,” the organization said on its website. “Citizens have even persuaded local boards to drop prayer altogether or to substitute a moment of silence.”
That’s exactly what Landman and her organization wants to happen. “We’d just like to see the public service get to work,” she said. “There’s a lot of wasted time at these meetings and it has nothing to do with city business.”
“I think a moment of silence is completely appropriate,” Iles said. “I don’t think it needs to be anything more than that.”
The invocation is the latest project of the atheists and freethinkers group, which distributed satanic coloring books last year at Delta County schools after Bibles were offered to students.