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Jesus bucked from prayer
Over pastors’ objections, town is set to approve rodeo prayer without Christian references.
By Benjamin Graham, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: November 21, 2012
Despite the pleas of pastors, Jesus doesn’t have a prayer at the Jackson Hole Rodeo.
The Jackson Town Council agreed Monday to an addendum to Phil Wilson’s rodeo contract that spells out the wording of a prayer that will be recited every night before the rodeo. The prayer begins with “Father” and asks for protection for contestants; it does not mention Jesus or use other overtly Christian language.
Pastors Mike Atkins and Don Landis protested the move on First Amendment, free speech grounds. The council, citing the same amendment as justification for separating church and state, is expected to approve the addendum at a future meeting.
Mayor Mark Barron said the issue is not one of prayer, Christianity or free speech.
“This Town Council has approved and continues to approve many Christian prayers throughout the town,” Barron said Monday at the rodeo’s annual review. “We do Christian caroling. We do the menorah.”
But the rodeo is different, he said.
“All of those Christian and other faith organizations applied [to the town] for a faith-based event,” he said Tuesday. “The rodeo applied for a rodeo concession. And we didn’t advertise for, nor did we expect to have, a Christian faith-based rodeo.
“This is simply about putting on a good show, which the Wilsons do a great job of, and having a prayer that invites everyone and isn’t exclusive,” Barron said.
Talk about the prayer began this past summer, when the mayor received complaints from rodeo spectators who felt forced to join the prerodeo benediction. Officials asked Wilson to make the prayer nonsectarian, saying the town legally cannot endorse a specific religion.
The rodeo announcer did not stick to the agreement. He sometimes reverted to the old prayer, which often quoted Bible passages and ended with: “We ask all these things in our Lord and savior Jesus Christ’s name, amen.”
The addendum is a way for the town to set the prayer in stone.
Wilson had Atkins, who heads the Chapel at River Crossing, a Jackson church, write the new prayer. But Atkins wasn’t thrilled about it.
“I know that restricting speech is a big issue in our nation,” Atkins said after reading the prayer aloud at the meeting Monday. “It takes a really, really compelling reason to ever restrict speech of any kind. Offense is not ever a reason for any speech to be restricted.”
Proponents of the prayer have said it is part of rodeo culture and should be protected as freedom of expression.
“A lot of what happened during that time was patriotic,” Atkins said of the prayers delivered last summer. “It was a Christian prayer because they are Christians.”
Barron stuck to his guns at the meeting, saying the officially approved prayer will be inclusive, rather than exclusive.
“We do have a great prayer at the Jackson Hole Rodeo,” Barron said. “And those of us who honor Christianity will do so in our hearts as we always have.”
Those who honor Islam, Judaism or another faith will do so in their hearts as well, he said.
“I think this is a unifying opportunity,” Barron said.
Landis, pastor of Community Bible Church, said he was offended the prayer had been washed of Christian language.
“We see this as a continuation of the loss of freedom of expression,” Landis said. “I think it’s a bad precedent to start having the government saying what is freedom of speech and what is not.”
Separation of church and state is not in the Constitution, Landis said. The country’s founding documents are based on Judeo-Christian principles, he insisted.
Others also spoke in favor of keeping the prayer.
“There are no atheists in a foxhole,” Wyoming Sen. Leland Christensen, R-Alta, said. “It’s an accepted part of [the rodeo].”
Christensen said his family has been participating in the rodeo for nine years.
Town officials received several emails over the last week objecting to regulation of the prayer.
This is the second year Wilson has operated the rodeo, which takes place two days a week during the summer. Town officials discussed the prayer with him at the rodeo’s 2011 review but did not make any changes to the concessionaire agreement.
The current contract expires in September 2013. In the past, when rodeo contracts have expired, the town has taken bids from operators and set up a committee to recommend a candidate to the council.
“We at the rodeo would like to keep the prayer,” Wilson said. “But we want to do the right thing for the community, too.”
Town officials also asked Wilson about a number of other issues connected with the rodeo, including its sound system, which often was played too loud, they said.
“I think you’re the best rodeo operators we’ve had since I’ve sat in this chair,” Barron said. But, he added, “the loudspeakers have got to get fixed.”
Wilson said he is already working to solve the problem.