Oh, God: Aurora City Council Preparing for Another Culture War

Mayor Mike Coffman (left) and members of the Aurora City Council.
Mayor Mike Coffman (left) and members of the Aurora City Council. Aurora City Council
While COVID-19 spreads quickly, time seems to stand still during a pandemic, and it feels like decades ago that members of the Aurora City Council faced off in a culture war.

But it was just last summer when councilmembers split along party lines in a fight over a Mexican flag being flown over the Aurora immigrant detention facility during a protest. Dave Gruber, a conservative member of council, called out three other members who'd been at the protest, insinuating during a council meeting that they had disrespected the troops by having been present.

Now, Gruber appears ready to go to battle again with progressive members of council over the word "God."

The first salvo went public on March 27, when Gruber tweeted that the council had called a Rules Committee meeting for March 30 to discuss "a proposal to change the Oath of Office and remove God."

According to Gruber, the proposed version would remove "so help me God" from the end of the oath that individuals elected to Aurora City Council take at a swearing-in ceremony.

In a tweet, Gruber instructed those who want council to keep the current oath, complete with its reference to God, to email the council office.

But Gruber's tweets were misleading, according to Councilwoman Nicole Johnston, who chairs the Rules Committee.

"He actually created a document," Johnston explains, noting that he even added the city logo to his creation, which was included in the tweet below.

"That is not from the city." she says firmly. "That was not authorized by the city."
According to Johnston, over the last few weeks members of council have been considering a range of ways of altering the oath, which was adopted by an earlier council.

The God-less version of the oath that Gruber included in his document is actually language that comes directly from the city charter, which was approved in 1961. The Aurora city attorney and clerk had sent this wording to members of council so that they could refer to it when considering any changes.

The version of the oath with the word "God" in it, which Gruber wants to keep, was created after the city charter was adopted; it was written by members who are no longer on the city council.

At the March 30 Rules Committee meeting, current councilmembers were going to continue discussing whether the oath should be changed but not vote on anything, Johnston says.

"It's frustrating that we're spending so much time on something that was never going to be [up for] a vote, and it's taking away from real constituent services in dealing with COVID," she adds. Because of the current crisis, Johnston had emailed members of council late last week to ask if they were okay with postponing the meeting...before she saw Gruber's post on social media.

But Gruber is taking credit for the postponement. "Thanks for your emails. You made the difference," Gruber posted to social media later on March 27.

"I am pleased council has decided to postpone the meeting scheduled for Monday and has agreed to invite public comment before voting on removal of 'so help me God' from our oath," he told Westword.

And the public has definitely been commenting in emails sent to council.

While a discussion of the issue has been postponed for a few weeks, it won't disappear.

Councilman Juan Marcano, a progressive who was elected to council last fall, is pushing to remove the "God" section from the oath. He characterizes the alteration as "a pretty straightforward and benign thing" designed to "be more accommodating of different faiths."

"It’s not excluding God. You are more than welcome to invoke God when you take the oath of office," Marcano adds, noting that he identifies as a humanist.

Both Marcano and Alison Coombs, the other new progressive member of council, left out "so help me God" when taking their oath of office in December 2019. Marcano says the two spoke with the presiding judge beforehand and asked for that accommodation.

Even though he'd like to make the change official, Marcano thinks it makes sense to postpone the discussion. "We will take it up after the pandemic has come under control. We're focused on other things right now for pretty obvious reasons," he says.

Once council's Rules Committee does take up the debate again, whether to remove "God" from the swearing-in oath won't be the only religious issue on the agenda. The committee will also be looking at the practice of offering a prayer at the start of council meetings, a church-and-state issue that's certain to rile up all sides.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.