At their workshop Monday evening, Grand Junction City Council decided mixing religion with government was a good thing to do, and they would continue to do it.
City Manager Greg Caton told council members the City’s invocation policy dates back to 2008, saying they all inherited the practice. Council had an opportunity Monday at their workshop to discontinue prayers at City Council meetings and avoid further controversy over the City’s persistent endorsement of religion, modify the current policy or substitute a moment of silence instead.
But history shows the City of Grand Junction always has a hard time coming into the 21st Century.
Religious invocations are a provincial throwback. Out of 21 other Colorado cities, the Daily Sentinel reported that only two still have invocations at city council meetings, and they are not typically a feature at city council meetings in any large American cities. Councilman Chris Kennedy added to the list of cities that don’t pray at their meetings, saying Delta, Telluride, Ouray, Ridgway, Crested Butte and Mount Crested Butte don’t have invocations at their city council meetings. He said everyone’s spiritual journey is unique, and religion is not “one size fits all,” adding that “Most of the time, the City’s invocations are done from a Christian mindset,” and given in the name of Jesus Christ. Kennedy added “It’s proselytizing. I don’t appreciate it.” Kennedy said the invocation “is sanctimonious,” that a moment of silence would be fine, but he would prefer to get right down to working on City business at their meetings.
City Council member Barbara Traylor Smith: “Our country was founded on Christian principles.”
Incredibly, Councilor Barbara Traylor-Smith (BTS) said “I believe our country was founded on Christian principles. I don’t know how anyone gets through their day without praying for someone.” She invoked the founding fathers and said “Congress does it” [prays at meetings] and people think it’s a “valuable piece” of meetings.
To some surprise, Bennett Boeschenstein, who is normally among the more progressive thinkers on Council, said he agreed with Barbara Traylor-Smith, that the system we currently have is good, and that “a lot of times no one shows up and we have a moment of silence.”
Duke Wortmann said he’s been a born-again Christian for ten years, likes the invocation and wants to keep it.
Phyllis Norris appeared reasonable, and came down in between the others and recognized that the sectarian public prayers are offensive to some citizens. “I have nothing against religion,” she said, “but some people don’t want to hear it.” She said she’s seen people wait outside Council meetings for the prayers to finish before coming in. “I’m not a religious person,” Norris said. “Where it’s at is fair to everyone but we need to make sure the speakers say in bounds. There are things they shouldn’t say,” she said, referring to the naming of a specific deity, which amounts to proselytizing and is prohibited under the invocation policy.
Duncan McArthur, who was present when the meeting began, had hard a hard time containing his coughing. He was using a portable oxygen concentrator, said shortly into the meeting that he was recovering from bronchitis and excused himself before the invocation discussion began.
Grand Junction’s current mayor, Councilman Rick Taggart, said he grew up Presbyterian, almost went into the seminary when he was younger but went to school to get a degree instead, and thought similarly to Norris. He said he believes faith is “deep but individual,” and “my own private issue.” Taggart said the City’s solution “tried as hard as possible to be fair” to everyone in town. He suggested that the City needed to do more, though, to let all individuals and organizations know they are welcome to put their name into the drawing to say invocations.
Chris Kennedy said city council represents everyone in town — “atheists, agnostics, buddhists,” and others. He pointed out that “It’s a fallacy to say we have a fair system when invocations are 90% Christian.” He disagreed with BTS that the United States is “a Christian nation” and said history proves it is not. Kennedy also said “We got rid of prayer in public schools a long time ago.” To this BTS grumbled aloud, “…And that’s what’s wrong with our schools today.” Kennedy said, “We aren’t doing a disservice to get rid of the invocation, we’re an outlier just having it. We need to concentrate on City business.”
How does the City find people to say invocations?
City Manager Greg Caton explained that the City goes to the phone book to find people to invite to give invocations, saying “We’re proactively trying to get names into the purse,” referring to the black leather purse that is circulated at Council workshops to select invocation speakers. City administration puts little slips of paper with the names of people who have asked to say invocations into the purse, the purse is circulated around the table and Council members pull individual names out of the purse. The City then contacts the people who are chosen and sends them a letter saying they have an opportunity to say the invocation. If an invitee declines or doesn’t show up on their appointed day, Council has a moment of silence instead of prayers.
Mayor Taggart said Council needs to do more to “remind presenters to keep their comments more generic,” in regard to saying the name of Jesus Christ, “but we may need to do more.”
Kennedy said “The resolution itself is okay, but it’s practical application doesn’t meet the intended purpose. Who’s job is it to tell speakers not to say certain things?
Phyllis Norris said it is the mayor’s job to step in and tell people they’ve violated the policy.
Kennedy then said, “I wouldn’t want to do that if I was mayor.”
By the end of the meeting, Councilman Chris Kennedy had shown significant courage in standing up for what’s best for the City to be fair to all citizens and prevent controversy, but the majority of council members wanted to keep the current controversial invocation policy intact, and deal with whatever invocations some down the pike as a result. The one beneficial change to come out of the meeting is that now Council will be held accountable for putting and end to speakers proselytizing by saying the name of “Jesus Christ” or other deities during their invocations, and creating a consequence for those who repeatedly violate the ordinance.
It took ten years to get this far, but that’s all Council could squeeze out.