The Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union fired off a letter to the Jackson mayor and Town Council about a new prayer at the summer rodeo, saying it’s illegal.
On Monday, the Jackson Town Council formally approved a prayer for next summer’s rodeo that does not refer to Jesus or the Bible. Last summer, rodeo prayers had Christian references and offended some people.
“However, including any prayer – whether or not sectarian – in a town-sponsored event raises serious concerns under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” stated the ACLU’s letter, which was dated Monday.
Bob McLaurin, Jackson town manager, said the Town Council and Mayor Mark Barron have not yet met to discuss the letter.
The ACLU’s letter cites court rulings from about a dozen cases throughout the country that determined government cannot favor one religion over another, or favor religion over nonreligion.
“Rodeo-goers head to the fairgrounds to watch rodeo, not to be led in prayer,” the letter states. “It is unfair for the town to place spectators in the uncomfortable position of having to choose whether to pray, make their faith or absence of faith an issue by choosing not to participate in prayer, or leave and miss out on the government-sponsored rodeo.”
Linda Burt, executive director of the ACLU in Wyoming, doesn’t expect her organization to take the town to court.
“I think the city council has been very attentive and responsive to that,” she said. “I’m certain they’ll do the right thing. It’s been clear that’s what they want to do. We’re not looking at any further problems with that.”
Rodeo prayers became an issue after Teton County received a complaint about them.
The town owns the fairgrounds, but the Teton County Fair Board manages them and Teton County uses the space for the county fair and other programs, said Roxanne DeVries Robinson, assistant town manager.
The town contracts with Phil Wilson and WW Productions to put on the Jackson Hole Rodeo on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the summertime.
“Since the issue has come up, we’ve gotten some additional emails for and against,” Robinson said.
In the fall, when the Town Council reviewed its agreement with Wilson and WW Productions, councilmen took on the issue of prayer. They added to the contract the following language: “Should the Concessionaire choose to conduct a prayer at the beginning of each rodeo, the prayer shall be non-sectarian.”
Wilson submitted to the Town Council a script for a prayer, drafted with the help of a pastor.
Previously, there had never been a script or instructions on how to pray, Robinson said.
The ACLU of Wyoming didn’t write the letter on behalf of a specific complaint it had received from anyone, Burt said.
There are legal ways to be observant that don’t involve the government promoting faith.
For example, Gov. Matt Mead has asked Wyomingites to observe a moment of silence at 9:30 a.m. Friday to honor the Connecticut school shooting victims.
“The moment of silence is certainly secular in the sense that everyone is free to do whatever they want in that moment of silence and there’s not necessarily a religious connotation,” Burt said.