Garfield prayer debate begins

When Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson asked that this year’s commission meetings begin with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer, he took his lead from on high.

As in Washington-high, not heaven-high.

“The U.S. Congress begins with a prayer. I think that’s a good example for us to follow,” Samson said.

He said he thinks the pledge and prayer set a good tone for meetings.

Fellow commissioners John Martin and Tom Jankovsky agreed to the idea. Samson said he has heard from a lot of people who support it. Critics and backers alike have made their views known in letters to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.

“Surely elected officials can write a budget and fix potholes without heavenly assistance,” wrote one of them, Marco Diaz of Redstone.

In an interview, Diaz said he supports freedom of speech, but he thinks commissioners are getting into a legal gray area.

“They’re testing the waters of separation of church and state,” he said.

But Andi Duplesys of Silt said people sometimes push that separation concept too far. She believes America’s forefathers always intended for meetings to be opened with a prayer.

“It’s difficult for me that people get so offended about that. It’s such a positive thing,” she said.

Anne Landman, a board member with the Western Colorado Atheists & Freethinkers, said Garfield commissioners ideally should just avoid the controversy altogether by stopping the new prayer practice. Short of that, she said she prefers to see governmental bodies begin meetings instead with a moment of silence (something the Rifle City Council does).

If commissioners insist on having a prayer, they should avoid ones that mention any specific deity, such as Jesus, because that is considered an endorsement of religion, Landman said.

That’s a position also taken by the Freedom from Religion Foundation on its website. At the same time, it acknowledges that in 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of prayer, within certain limits, at the state legislative level.

Landman said Garfield County commissioners shouldn’t continuously have Christians lead prayers.

“They have to open it up to everyone, religious and not religious, and they’ll keep themselves out of trouble,” she said.

That open approach, based on a lottery system, has helped defuse concerns over prayers at Grand Junction City Council meetings and recently led to an atheist being allowed to give the invocation.

Samson said that although he envisioned having a ministers group help determine who would say prayers at the weekly commission meetings, he doesn’t want to exclude anyone and is open to the idea of atheists participating.

But Duplesys said she wouldn’t think an atheist would have anything to say in a prayer.

“It’s not like an atheist prays, so that’s a totally different subject,” she said.

Meanwhile, a road and bridge employee for Garfield County took advantage of the current controversy to write in the Glenwood paper that he and co-workers long have prayed because of motorists who show no regard for county road workers. Randy Gorsett called on motorists to slow down and pay attention when they see workers “patchin’ and prayin’.”



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