Amid ACLU concern, Wyo. city stands by rodeo prayer

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union aren’t causing Jackson officials to do away with a public prayer said over a loudspeaker before the town’s summer rodeo.

Mayor Mark Barron said the council didn’t plan further changes after the town took steps last month to make the prayer nonsectarian. The Town Council didn’t take up the prayer at its Jan. 7 meeting.

“I’m not ready to take up a battle with the ACLU. I’m just trying to run a little western rodeo,” Barron said.

An ACLU attorney, Jennifer Horvath, said yesterday she hoped the council would reconsider. She stopped short of threatening to sue, however.

“We’ll see what happens at this year’s rodeo,” Horvath said by e-mail.

The ACLU wrote to town officials in December, saying some rodeo attendees felt pressured to participate in the prayer, which mentioned the Bible and Jesus Christ. The ACLU claimed the prayer violated separation of church and state.

“The federal courts have repeatedly held that officially sponsored prayers and religious exercise is unconstitutional,” the letter read.

The town last month revised its contract with the rodeo organizer to include a new, nonsectarian prayer to be said at the rodeo. The prayer doesn’t make Christian references and is addressed to “Father,” not “God.”

The minor changes are insufficient, Horvath said.

“We commend the council on its efforts to respond to citizens’ complaints. But simply replacing the word ‘God’ with the word ‘Father’ fails to address their concerns, and fails to correct the constitutional violations,” Horvath wrote to the Associated Press.

Two new Town Council members sworn in Jan. 7 may decide to take a different approach to the prayer, Jackson town attorney Audrey Cohen-Davis said yesterday.

Meanwhile, she hoped to talk with Horvath to learn more about the specifics of the ACLU’s concerns, she said.

Cohen-Davis described the language as not really a prayer, but a reflection.

There are “many levels of reflection that are done all the way to the president,” she said.

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