The Problems with Mixing Religion and Government in Mesa County & Grand Junction

“Sad, that their choice was taken away…. No one had to take a Bible if they didn’t want one. All through life you have to make life decisions. This would have been a good life training to stand up as an individual and say ‘no thank you.’ ”

The above was a comment left on a previous blog about the Gideon Bible giveaway that was to take place at the Colorado Mesa University’s nursing program pinning ceremony December 11. This commenter, and others who wrote in a similar vein, show there is a fundamental misunderstanding about U.S. government locally, and about the nature of the U.S. government and the benefits of keeping church and state separate.

churchstateMany people mistakenly claim the U.S.was “founded as a Christian nation,” and point to our country’s founding documents as proof.

They need to look more closely.

The U.S. Constitution contains no mention of “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ” or any other deity. The founders intentionally designed it as a completely secular document. The Declaration of Independence does mention a generic “Creator,” but the Declaration is not U.S. law. It was a letter addressed to the King of England. Many people confuse the two documents. The difference between them is huge. The only document that has the force of law behind it is the Constitution. It’s the only one that really matters.

The Bill of Rights is similarly secular, with no mention of a god or gods, lords or deities. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, contained in the Bill of Rights, provides for a separation between religion and government. This provision truly sets the United States apart from other countries.

The U.S. government’s character is secular by design, as evidenced by the fact that religion is completely unnecessary for our government to operate. The American ideal is for government to support all citizens in the enjoyment of their own personal choice of religion or lack thereof. Why? Because endorsing one religion over others violates the basic American principle of equality on which our country and laws are founded.

In the U.S., we have both religious liberty AND laws that prohibit government from meddling in religious matters.

Don’t Get It? Try This:

To understand why it’s better to keep church and state separate, try the following thought exercise:

Imagine for a moment that in the U.S., religion and the government are freely intermingled and government encourages citizens to participate in the dominant religion, exactly the way many Christians would love to see it.

Now imagine that the dominant religion isn’t Christianity. Instead, it’s Pastafarianism, whose followers worship in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

In this new, religious U.S., you attend a City Council meeting. At the beginning of the meeting, the mayor tells everyone to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance and to remain standing for an invocation given by a minister from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who prays as follows:

Our Pasta, who “Arghh” in heaven, Swallowed be thy shame. Thy Midgit come. Thy Sauce be yum, On top some grated Parmesan. Give us this day our garlic bread. And give us our cutlasses, As we swashbuckle, splice the main-brace and cuss. And lead us into temptation, But deliver us some Pizza. For thine are Meatballs, and the beer, and the strippers, for ever and ever.

RAmen.

You don’t like the Pastafarian invocation, but Council has a policy that anyone in attendance who doesn’t like the invocation or believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster can “sit, stand or leave the room” during the invocation.

The $64,000 plaza in front of Grand Junction City Hall, installed to circumvent separation of church and state and keep the religious Ten Commandments tablet on public land.

The $64,000 plaza in front of Grand Junction City Hall, installed to circumvent separation of church and state and keep the religious Ten Commandments tablet on public land.

But you are at the meeting because you need Council to approve a development permit so you can built your house. You know the Mayor is Pastafarian. You need her to vote in your favor, and you don’t want to take the chance of offending her by staying seated or running out of the room for the invocation. So you stand there. You bow your head, clasp your hands and listen to the nutty invocation with a straight face, even though you think this whole part of the meeting is absurd and annoying.

How would you feel under this scenario? Would you obediently close your eyes, bow your head like everyone else in the room, clasp your hands and say “RAmen” at the end of the prayer to increase the chances you will get your development permit?

You might go along with it, but it would sure rub you the wrong way, wouldn’t it?

This exercise gives religious people an idea of what it’s like to be a nonbeliever at public hearings in Grand Junction and Mesa County, where citizens are routinely subjected to a compulsory public prayer, usually to someone else’s imaginary deity.

Is this the kind of America you want to live in? Where your nose gets rubbed in weird, compulsory religious ceremonies just because you need to get a sewer or development permit?

Probably not.

Why Does Christianity Need Government, Anyway?

If the above thought exercise doesn’t help explain why religion and government are best kept separate, maybe some logic will help.

Why do Christians believe that compulsive support for their religion by government is necessary? If Christianity is a credible, strong and persuasive enough religion on its own, then it should be able to stand on its merits and attract plenty of followers without any coercion or backing from the government.

Perhaps Christianity, with all its myths and inconsistencies, isn’t all that credible and can’t stand on its merits. It could be that people are highly unlikely to adopt Christianity unless they are pushed towards it by government. Could that be why efforts to mingle Christianity and religion are so common locally, and even nationally? And who told Christians that using government as a promotional conduit is a good idea, anyway? After all, if KFC’s sales are lagging, they don’t promote their chicken at city council and county commissioner meetings. They buy billboards and run TV ads, so they can reach more people. Why does Christianity use government as a promotional conduit when they can reach more people with TV ads and billboards?

Maybe they seek the cache’ of government, even though respect for government seems to be relatively low wherever you go these days. Christianity hitching a ride on government’s back just doesn’t makes sense, no matter how you look at it.

Despite this, government officials still insist on hosting sectarian prayers at public hearings, and in so doing open a can of worms and risk miring their jurisdictions in distracting and potentially expensive problems.

Never has this been more true than now, in 2015, as Mesa County becomes more diverse than ever.

Government-instigated prayers at City Council and County Commissioner meetings can damage public harmony by creating the impression that the City and County hold one religion in higher esteem than others. Elected officials are completely free to express their personal religious beliefs by talking about the role their religions play in their own lives, but they do not have the right to use the power of their office to proselytize or impose their religious beliefs on others. Elected officials who pray, or allow invocations to “Jesus Christ” at public hearings held to consider sewer extensions, liquor licenses or new development applications, risk belittling the people who must attend but are not adherents to their own personal faith. And the chances of offending people increase all the time. City officials simply can no longer responsibly or fairly address this by conveying a “suck it up and put up with it” attitude towards citizens.

Confusing “Religious Liberty” with “Religious Privilege”

Some people think asking public officials not to say say “Jesus Christ” at public hearings amounts to religious persecution, but they are confusing religious liberty with religious privilege.

Religious liberty means people are free to practice their own religion on their own time in appropriate places, like their homes, on the public sidewalk and in privately-owned buildings like churches, without hindrance. Religious liberty means you can believe anything you want, no matter how crazy it is.

“Religious liberty” does NOT mean religious groups and individuals get free air-time to parade their own religions in front others at public government meetings and events, nor does it mean they can impose their beliefs on others, or try to regulate other peoples’ behavior to assure it aligns with their own personal beliefs. Invocations at public hearings do, in fact, provide free unlimited air time for religious speakers. There is no time limit placed on the length of a public invocation.

“Religious privilege” is when certain religions get free promotion at public meetings, or tax breaks other people can’t have because they aren’t adherents to the dominant religion, and when public officials use their official capacity to make it look like they prefer one religion over others. Religious privilege is when one religion dominates public invocations, whether by accident or by design.
Courts have ruled that generic expressions of religion, defined as prayers to a “lord” or “god,” without naming a specific deity, are permissible at public hearings. But what is permissible can not just be a bad idea, but fraught with potential problems.

Parading religion at public events courts trouble, as Colorado Mesa University found this out earlier this month. Mixing government with religion puts a spark to an emotionally charged issue, so there are very strict limits on how it can be done. Given this, it’s odd so many local elected officials and government employees seem unaware of the legal limits placed on mixing government and religion. This is particularly true in Grand Junction and Mesa County, where government repeatedly mingles with religion at public hearings and ceremonies, on City Hall grounds and even occasionally within District 51 schools. Elected officials who choose to inject religion into government walk a fine line in which they risk offending or alienating multiple groups of people, make some citizens feel like outsiders, bring an avalanche of bad PR and even risk lawsuits as citizens seek ways to make their displeasure known about being treated like second class citizens.

Public Officials: Know What You Are Doing!

People for the American Way has compiled a list of 12 Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics that very clearly outline the allowable limits for mingling religion with government. All local elected officials would do well to read them. It takes time and effort to learn and abide by all the rules, thus many elected officials opt to be 100% safe by avoiding mixing religion with politics at all. That is the only sure-fire way to treat all residents equally and avoid potential lawsuits over perceived government sponsorship of religion.

In the 21st century, Mesa County is more religiously pluralistic than ever. We now have a Muslim community, a Mennonite community, a Jewish community, a B’Hai community, a Mormon community and a growing and outspoken secular community, among many others. All are paying attention to what local government does, and how our elected officials act, and all are rightfully expecting equal treatment from these entities.

The real challenge is not for local elected officials to figure out how to correctly mingle government and religion, and cross their fingers and hope they don’t overstep legal boundaries or offend any groups. The real challenge is for elected officials to remain steadfastly neutral when it comes to religion, be hospitable towards people of all faiths and of no faith, and assure their actions are always inclusive, and not divisive, when it comes to religiosity.

4 comments for “The Problems with Mixing Religion and Government in Mesa County & Grand Junction

  1. American Patriot
    November 30, 2015 at 4:17 pm

    Ann,
    An eloquently written, if misguided, synopsis in explanation of an anecdotal, anonymous offense.

    You started your writing by saying that it is the individuals right to refuse material that they don’t want. In that, we are in total agreement, as can be verified by reading my comment to your prior writing about the Gideon Bible giveaway.

    But thereafter, respectfully, we must disagree, because you seem to be describing a problem with religion, when your real problem appears more likely to be a political problem. You describe how some people may feel intimidated when seeking a sewer or liquor permit or license, and how they might choose to endure in silence an offense in furtherance of their desired effect.

    Has it occurred to you that the elected officials are doing the same thing? And they got that way after becoming politicians? And they do what they do quite possibly in furtherance of their desired effect, which is to be re-elected. Some call it pandering. Others just call it politics. Sometimes it’s broadcast in the name of a specific deity. Other times, it falls under the heading of a broad spectrum seeding.

    And I certainly will grant you that we have far too many people who use religion in furtherance of their own desires. And that we have far too few people who are true believers. And both, at times, can be overbearing, and overzealous. It is my life’s experience that the true believers never give intentional offense.

    They sometimes can be annoying in much the same way as an individual that just smoked their first joint. For them, the worm has definitely turned and they feel an uncontrollable desire to turn on the whole world. And yes, I have met both types.

    What concerns me are the baker and the candlestick maker who are faced with the proposition of having to leave their religious beliefs in the closet when they open their business every day. And some (not all) of those who appear to want to use the law to eradicate religion. I fear that through the inevitability of gradualism, some may find it undesirable that there be any place “appropriate” for religious practices.

    Do you by chance recall the cult flower children who sold their flowers at the airports some years back? I purchased some of those flowers myself, not because I wanted to support their cult beliefs, but because they had a beautiful product; and it always made my wife so happy when I would return home from a long trip with a single red rose in hand, (in furtherance of my own desired effect).

    Really, when you get right down to it, our world is a better place, because in it we have the beauty of a red rose, and true believers. So I don’t mind if someone wants to hand me a Bible or a red rose, nor am I equally offended by a hug, even from the Spaghetti Monster.

    But I am realistic enough to know that when a politician wants to give you a hug, you had best keep one hand on your wallet. Yeah Ann, I think we do have a lot in common. It took me almost two years of being hugged by politicians before I realized my wallet was missing, and there was an ongoing effort to compromise my adopted conservative values and principles.

    And it’s in that exact moment that I realized that I had been aiming at the wrong target. And it doesn’t matter how well you shoot, if you keep hitting the wrong target. Think about it. It’s the difference between the power of persuasion and the persuasion of power, as applied to your desired effect.

    • Anne Landman
      November 30, 2015 at 4:43 pm

      Chuck, you’re eloquent, a good writer and your comments are great. Thanks for the agreement, and thanks for the difference, and for taking the time to comment.

      Notice I wrote, “The American ideal is for government to support all citizens in the enjoyment of their own personal choice of religion or lack thereof.” I don’t think religion is going to disappear any time soon.

      Your observation that local elected officials promote religion to promote themselves and get re-elected are spot-on. It’s worked for many of them, too. But look how Reford Theobold ended up. But I guess it isn’t that unusual for common criminals to get re-elected either, is it?

      • American Patriot
        November 30, 2015 at 5:16 pm

        “it isn’t that unusual for common criminals to get re-elected either, is it?”

        Not uncommon at all. But then they have a larger voting base than atheists, although I have heard some who believe they are one in the same. And that’s a perception that arises by people that are offended by atheism. The Freudian explanation is the conclusion that those who do not believe are without foundation, morals, values or principles.

        You might recognize the application of that argument to the Tea Parties, usually reflected in a statement such as ‘did you notice they have dead eyes’ or perhaps ‘they don’t know what they want, or do they just want to throw rocks?’

        People are people and they’re going to judge each other. And that won’t disappear any time soon. And that presents as a formidable barrier, or so it may seem at first. Why, I can remember when the Republican party called us crazies and said with conviction; ‘there’s just no way in hell that you’re ever going to have any political power outside the party’, But that was before they came to the understanding that if you cannot pick the winners, you can certainly influence who loses. And you know what they call political parties that can’t win elections? Well, we call them organ donors.

        It is not weapons that win wars, it is will. But it helps when you start hitting the right targets. And I think right now, if I were on the other side, I would be out knocking on doors and persuading Democrats to go register Republican so that they could vote for Trump in the primary. Say What??? Welcome To Fruita. But there’s a method to the madness. You see, there’s twenty to twenty five percent of the “ruling elite” Republican establishment that will not vote for Trump under any circumstances.

        Epiphany? If you can’t pick the winners, then why not try picking the losers? It’s nothing more than working the other end of the political power structure. If you have trouble with that concept, just go ask someone in the GOP inner circle to explain it. But expect profanity and perhaps the gnashing of teeth and flailing of limbs. Yeah, it’s a new experience for them too.

        And PS, thanks for the kind words…….. or are they roses??

  2. Ken
    November 30, 2015 at 2:51 pm

    I have personally experienced this at public meetings, social events and the dinner table. I have always received some type of criticism or sideways glances. In my opinion, Christians violate their own beliefs when they behave in this manner. My comment is usually to question the source which generally is found to be a consensus of uniformed opinion resulting from imagination.

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