Officials in Mesa County, Colo., who have been warned by atheists and “freethinkers” that they are being watched, have been told they will get help if they are sued over a policy that allows invocations to open public meetings in the Western Colorado region.
The offer of help comes from Alliance Defense Fund, whose senior legal counsel, Mike Johnson, said, “Public officials throughout our country need to be encouraged and reminded that they can and should resist the increasingly radical demands of secularist groups with regard to invocations before public meetings.”
The organization’s offer to Mesa County includes any challenge to such activities if the commissioners adopt a model prayer policy that has been written specifically to meet the requirements of the U.S. Constitution.
“It is sad that some radical secularist groups are trying to eliminate one of our oldest and most cherished American traditions,” Johnson added.
The dispute in Grand Junction involves the Western Colorado Atheists and Freethinkers, along with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, American Atheists, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
The organizations have reported in local news reports they are “watching” the commissioners’ actions.
“As you know, there is simply no question that a legislative body may open its sessions with an invocation,” ADF told the commissioners. “Public prayer has been an essential part of our heritage since the time of this nation’s founding, and our Constitution has always protected this activity. Moreover, such prayer can include sectarian references without running afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”
The activist law firm said the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed such an interpretation, and indeed, that very court opens with the words, “God save the United States and this honorable court.”
“Our country’s Founding Fathers opened their meetings with prayer,” Johnson said. “Those who oppose Christian invocations are essentially arguing that the Founders were violating the Constitution as they were writing it.”
The offer comes as part of the ADF’s campaign, which it launched in 2007, to advise public bodies of their constitutional rights to open meetings with an invocation. The group mailed thousands of informational letters to local governments with that advice.
Since then, the ADF have gotten numerous requests for help from state legislatures and county and city governments.
In announcing the ADF program, Johnson said, “It’s amazing that, in a country founded on religious liberty, the centuries-old choice to open a public meeting with a prayer of the giver’s choosing is coming under attack.”
He said opponents have launched a campaign of “fear, intimidation, and disinformation” to threaten governmental officials, and the ADF is responding with legal advice and help for those who want to battle the “far-flung, secular agenda.”