An atheist will give the invocation at Grand Junction City Council's first meeting of 2011. It will be the crowning achievement of a two-and-a-half-year effort by the Western Colorado Atheists & Freethinkers to get their voice heard at City Hall. And it will be the first atheist invocation in Colorado, says WCAF boardmember Anne Landman. "This is historic."
The meeting will take place at 7:00 p.m. on January 5 in Grand Junction's City Hall, and WCAF Vice President Joe Alaimo will do the honors. The WCAF as an organization has no idea what Alaimo will say. "We're just going to trust him," says Landman.
The Grand Junction community hasn't exactly embraced the WCAF. In fact, its members have received death threats. But the city council has been accommodating, even if certain members have "been kind of bristly toward us," Landman says.
For years, Grand Junction's City Council had no policy in place regarding invocations. Informally, they asked a conservative Christian group, the Ministerial Alliance, to select their invocation speakers for them. Landman says they initially offered the same thing to Grand Valley Interfaith, an organization with broader religious inclusion, but that the group did not want to be a part of any kind of prayer before government meetings.
In 2008, WCAF asked the council to ban the mention of specific deities in the invocation. Landman went through tapes of Council meetings going back several years and says they were "90 percent Christian, with a token Jew about 10 percent of the time."
The typical invocation included a moment where the speaker would "have people bow their heads and pray to our savior.
"It was just very awkward," she says.
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The Council refused the request, however, saying it didn't want to censor the invocation. Instead, it adopted a resolution making the selection process to be more inclusive. The policy, which was enacted last fall, stipulates that all "persons, established congregations and/or spiritual assemblies located in the community" are allowed to be put into a random lottery to determine who gives the invocation.
The Grand Junction City Clerk's office compiles a list of all the spiritual organizations in the community and also puts out a notice for requests open to anyone for any reason. There is no limit to what the invocation speaker can say, although every speaker is sent a notice requesting objectivity. It reads:
A spiritual leader is free to offer an invocation according to the dictates of his/her own conscience, but in order to comply with applicable Constitutional law, the City Council requests that the invocation not be exploited to proselytize a particular religious tenet or religious creed or derogate another religious faith or to disparage any other faith or belief.
Obviously, this request is frequently ignored. The WCAF has been putting its members' names in the lottery for over a year, and one of them was drawn for the January 3 meeting. Alaimo, who is already on the lottery list elsewhere as a representative of the Church of Spiritual Humanism, agreed to speak on behalf of the WCAF for the member whose name was drawn.