Group concerned prayer policy not respectful to range of religions
ATHEISTS KEEP TABS ON COMMISSION PRAYERS
Those fighting to keep God out of public meetings have been attending the meetings themselves.
Armed with note pads, laptops and digital audio recorders, members of the Western Colorado Atheists and Free Thinkers have been filling the pews at Mesa County government meetings. They listen intently to the invocations for names of deities, like Jesus, they document when the gavel falls to start the meeting and note which of the three commissioners is giving the invocation that day.
They also are keeping an eye on Grand Junction City Council meetings via the Internet.
The atheist group says the city and the county continue to violate the law by invoking the name of Jesus and by giving Christian invocations. No one is saying “lawsuit” yet, but there has been a lot of saber-rattling.
The city changed its policy late last year in reaction to the group’s complaints. The new policy encourages that invocations be given by followers of many faiths, not just Christianity, and discourages invocators from proselytizing.
The county moved its invocations to the beginning of meetings, before the Internet cameras begin rolling and before the gavel comes down to officially start the proceedings, which is why anyone wanting to observe the commission’s invocation, unlike with City Council, must be in attendance.
That agenda change doesn’t make for a separation of church and state, said Bill Hugenberg, a former practicing attorney with an inactive license who advises members of the Western Colorado Atheists and Free Thinkers.
“The open-meeting law makes no reference to a gavel,” Hugenberg said. “The meeting starts when two officials (a majority of the three-member board of county commissioners) enter the room.”
“It is considered a public meeting whenever they are together up in front of the public,” said Anne Landman, an atheist. “They are waiting until people come to the meeting, get there and be seated for the public meeting. It is not prior to the public meeting.”
Landman has appeared in the front row at a few County Commission meetings with a laptop computer to record video and a digital recorder.
Marilyn Dodd, a fellow atheist, is a bit more inconspicuous. She sits farther back among the audience members with a note pad and pen.
“We are all great believers in freedom,” Dodd said.
Bottom line, according to Dodd, Landman and Hugenberg, is that the county’s invocation policy is not respectful to other religions and is leaving the county open to potential litigation.
Commissioner Janet Rowland has become the lightning rod for those opposing the county’s policy. Rowland, unlike commissioners Craig Meis and Steve Acquafresca, invokes the name of Jesus.
“It is really a sham,” Landman said. “If Janet Rowland cannot find it in her brain or her heart or her soul to say an invocation that respects everyone, she can certainly recuse herself. …
The other two have omitted the name Jesus.”
Rowland falls back on the flag and 200-plus years of United States history.
“Praying before public meetings is nearly as old as our country is and is something that is a long-standing tradition that happens in Congress, it happens in our Statehouse, and the fact it happens in our (county) courthouse should not be any different,” Rowland said. “The fact we open with prayer before we ever actually officially open the meeting certainly separates it from any public activity. And I feel we are on very solid ground that there are no issues or challenges with regard to separation of church and state.”
Although the county has not adopted the standards of the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian faith-based, legal organization, the organization sides with Rowland and the county.
“This is a Christian nation,” said Joel Oster, senior litigation counsel for the ADF. “There is no Constitutional right not to be offended. We don’t need to erase our nation’s history because someone might have a different perspective.”
As for the city’s revised policy, Landman said it needs some modification. She said there have been at least four instances where the invocation crossed the line. She said she e-mailed City Attorney John Shaver regarding the matter but has yet to receive a reply.
“They are continuing to give Christian invocations,” she said.
Both those opposed to the current invocations and the ADF claim to have case law on their side. No known lawsuits have been filed, and none are known to be planned.
“Until the court rules,” Hugenberg said, “it is purely a matter of opinion, but some opinion is more informed than others.”