Secular group’s billboard aimed at governments’ pre-meeting prayers

More than a year after the Grand Junction City Council adopted a policy it thought would squelch a controversy over prayer at the beginning of its meetings, a national foundation is making it clear its concerns haven’t subsided.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., has purchased and put up a billboard on North Avenue west of 29 1/2 Road that reads “Keep Religion OUT of Government,” an expression of dissatisfaction with how council members and Mesa County commissioners pray at the beginning of their meetings. The billboard will be up for at least a month.

The city and county, while refusing to discontinue invocations, have made adjustments to how they pray. Commissioners moved the prayer to before the official start of the meeting. Council members broadened the range of invocators invited to give an address and discouraged people from using the invocation as an opportunity to proselytize.

But Anne Landman, a member of the foundation as well as the group Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers, said she believes local governments still cross a First Amendment line.

She called the county’s change “a legal end run” that isn’t “very up-front and honest.”

“It technically makes no difference because technically when commissioners are together it’s a public meeting,” Landman said. “Clearly they still want to make it part of the meeting.”

Commissioner Janet Rowland dismissed the concerns of the two organizations, saying, “It’s really just a vocal minority that wants to continue to talk about this.

“There is a long-standing history in our country, from its founding, of prayer before public meetings. It continues today from Washington, D.C., to the statehouse. For it to continue today in our courthouse is fine.”

As for the city, Landman said city officials continue to refuse to instruct invocators not to name a specific deity, which she said would avoid advertising a certain religion. Council members have said they will not try to limit what an invocator says.

Landman claimed that out of the nearly 200 people and organizations who have expressed interest in giving invocations at City Council meetings, all but eight or 10 are Christian-based. She said several Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers members have submitted their names to the city as interested invocators but have yet to be selected.

“The statistics are pretty well stacked against diversity,” she said.

Mayor Bruce Hill did not return a phone message Thursday to comment for this story.

Landman said WCAF continues to monitor prayer at city and county meetings. She said she didn’t know whether the organization would send further formal correspondence to either the County Commission or City Council.


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