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Invocation OK, County Board concedes

A proposal to drop the invocation that starts St. Croix County Board meetings and replace it with “a moment of silence and reflection,” drew the ire of nine citizens at a committee meeting last week.

Later at that same meeting, Supervisor Roy Sjoberg, Hudson, who had suggested the change, backed down and said he’d have no problem with allowing invocations.

The Administration Committee eventually voted to recommend that County Board meetings begin with “an invocation or a moment of silence.”

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” protested Al Wilkie, Hudson, who said he believes the change was recommended by well-intentioned people who think having an invocation is exclusionary. But, said Wilkie, nobody is being harmed by the practice.

Invocations are traditional in United States government and are an important part of the life of the community, said Wilkie. He added that the U.S. Senate opens its sessions with a prayer and both houses of Congress have chaplains.

“What I see is God being taken away from us,” said Wilkie, who added later, “We don’t want to infringe on the freedom of others, and we don’t want to force our religion upon other people.”

He said “invoking the presence of a higher power,” can be done by people of all faiths.

“I don’t see that as being exclusionary to anybody,” said Wilkie, who sat down to applause.

Keeping the tradition of invocation won’t put the county in danger of establishing a religion, said Jamie Johnson, town of Hudson. He said early Americans came here to be free to practice their own faiths and not be bound by a government-sanctioned religion.

“Freedom of religion, that’s what it is,” said Johnson. “It’s not freedom from religion.”

He added, “If it’s good enough for Congress, and it’s good enough for our state Legislature, it should be good enough for our County Board.”

Just because Dane County changes what it calls the opening message, doesn’t mean St. Croix County should, concluded Johnson.

The practice of opening County Board meetings with an invocation goes back to 1971 and is not exclusionary, said Lon Feia, town of Hudson.

“I do not understand the rationale to revise something that is done commonly in our legislative bodies,” he added.

“What an invocation is is a call to a higher body … a call to a higher duty,” said Mike Nieskes, one of the county’s assistant district attorneys. He said it reminds board members of their duty to the community.

Nieskes said he has never heard of anyone being offended by a board invocation.

“Sometimes we have to go back in history to find out if we’ve lost our way,” said Paula Frye, adding, “We are a Christian nation.”

She said the oath of office that all County Board members take includes the phrase “so help me God.”

The clergy who lead the invocation have already been told that their prayer has to be nonsectarian, said Tim Sackett, Hudson, chaplain of Transport for Christ, a ministry operated at a truck stop off I-94.

He said he works with the county clerk to develop the rotation for those who lead the invocation and they try to reach out to all denominations.

“To have a message from the County Board that we are not welcome is devastating to us,” said Sackett. He said it’s their way of communicating that people, pastors and congregations do care what the County Board does.

“This appears to be a solution looking for problem,” said Robert Shearer, town of Troy, who served on the County Board for two years.

He said it looks like someone is just looking for something to do, adding, “I for the life of me can’t figure out why.”

The invocation tells the board, “We’re behind you, and we do pray for you,” said Randy Simonson, senior pastor of Harvestime Outreach Church. He said delivering the invocation is a privilege and something the pastors would love to continue.

Sjoberg said a 15-member subcommittee spent six meetings, each lasting three to four hours, going over and revising the board’s rules and bylaws.

They “stumbled” over the word “invocation,” said Sjoberg.

He said he questioned the appropriateness of starting County Board meetings with an invocation.

“I myself am a religious person,” said Sjoberg, adding that he evokes a higher power to help him make decisions.

“We are, though, a system of laws, and we all have our right to express our religious beliefs, and that’s something we would all die to protect, would we not?” said Sjoberg. He said he doesn’t want to offend persons of other beliefs and wants all to feel welcome to attend County Board meetings.

Scott Cox, the county’s attorney, said his research of U.S. Supreme Court decisions indicates the county’s practice of opening meetings with prayer is legal. He said prayers can be sectarian as long as the county does not discriminate. Cox added that if a county does not discriminate, it doesn’t have to reach beyond its borders to achieve religious balance.

The committee had polled Wisconsin’s other counties and found that of 72, 28 have invocations, 33 have none, 10 have moments of reflection and one has a moment of silence for the troops.

“None of us in this room really care what the majority of the counties do. It’s what we do here,” said Sjoberg.

“Personally, I am persuaded that the invocation is a good thing,” he concluded, adding, “It’s the establishment of a religion by government that I’m opposed to, and that’s what our Founding Fathers were opposed to.”

Supervisor Jill Berke, town of Troy, made a motion to change the wording to “invocation or moment of silence.” That motion was adopted by the committee.

When the committee finishes working on the bylaw revisions, the document will go to the full County Board for action.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.