County council continues invocation debate

Revised guidelines to be considered Aug. 15

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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When the Clark County council set out to revise the guidelines for its invocation, a prayer given at the start of meetings, members intended not to spend much time rethinking the practice that’s been in place since 2013.

But the county will now be spending more time on the issue after a disagreement emerged during the council’s Wednesday afternoon board time meeting over how to allow secular residents to participate in the practice.

In recent months, the council and county staff have been working on revising the guidelines with the aims of reducing staff time spent on arranging the invocation and making the practice more inclusive, particularly to nonreligious people.

An earlier draft of the revised guidelines stated that “a group having no religious affiliation may request the opportunity to offer a moment of silence in place of an invocation.” But the guidelines were revised again after Stuart Riley, an atheist resident of Hazel Dell, as well as other more secular-minded residents of Clark County, raised concerns that it was unfair that nonreligious people could only offer a moment of silence.

The most recent revisions would allow nonreligious individuals to offer a “statement” before the council’s meeting. But again there were complaints that these revisions were unfair because they treated non-religious individuals differently than those adhering to a faith.

Riley has also been in contact with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization that advocates for separation of church and state. In an email, Elizabeth Cavell, associate counsel for the foundation, wrote the that the county council’s revised guidelines were likely “unconstitutional” and that “having separate policy guidelines for different demographics is inviting confusion and discrimination in practice.”

At the council’s Wednesday afternoon board time meeting, Councilor Julie Olson suggested changing the draft of the revised guidelines to allow “anybody from any faith or non-faith” to give an invocation.

“An invocation is a prayer,” said Councilor Eileen Quiring, who has been skeptical of the idea of secular invocations.

“Not necessarily,” Olson said.

“Yes, it is,” Quiring said. “Look it up in the dictionary.”

During the meeting, Quiring said there has been “a lot of noise in the community” with people being “negative” about the proposed changes to the invocation. She said could count these people on “one hand” and that there were more groups in favor of the changes to the invocation who could also be “noisy.”

“So if you’d like that I’ll go ahead and get some groups to start emailing us to let us know that they are in favor of this,” Quiring said.

“I don’t want that,” Olson said. “I think we’ve spent enough time on this already. I’m just trying to be as inclusive as we can be so we can move on and get over this.”

The council is now scheduled to consider the further revised guidelines Aug. 15.