Atheists’ request to halt invocations ruffles feathers
No. 7 of the Top Ten stories for 2008
A decades-old, uncontested practice of the Grand Junction City Council was shoved into the spotlight this year when a local atheist group asked council members to stop opening their meetings with a prayer.
After a few months of legal research, public demonstrations and back-and-forth debates on local blogs and Internet forums, the city chose to retain the prayers but tweaked how they were conducted. Now, the Mesa County Commission is being challenged by a national group on the same issue.
Western Colorado Atheists wrote a letter to the city in May, imploring it to put an end to the invocations given by local religious figures at the beginning of every Monday council meeting.
The group contended frequent references to Christianity violated the separation clause of the First Amendment.
Several council members bristled at the urging.
“I, for one, am sick and tired of the vocal minority,” Councilman Doug Thomason said. “I’m no religious fanatic, but this country was founded on Christian principles, and we’ve gone so far away from that that it’s mind-boggling.”
Thomason’s comments prompted TV-and-movie-star-turned-syndicated-columnist Chuck Norris to write an editorial encouraging the council to maintain its practice. More supporters of the prayers emerged in June, when a handful of people demonstrated in front of City Hall.
Two months later, council members voted to adopt a new policy allowing the broadening of the range of spiritual leaders who give the invocations and forbidding prayers that endorse a particular religion.
The council, though, has talked about revisiting the policy early next year. On several occasions, representatives of local churches and religious groups have been invited on a random basis to give prayers but haven’t shown up, leaving the council to hold a moment of silence.
In the meantime, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation has asked Mesa County commissioners to make their invocation non-secular or eliminate it altogether.