Letter to the editor: Closing prayer not appropriate

I was pleased to find myself downtown last weekend, just in time for the start of the Lazarus Park dedication event in Middlebury. It was an enjoyable, well-run event on the part of the town. It was nice seeing so many people there valuing civic engagement both functional and ceremonial. Gov. Scott and the rest of the speakers all had inspiring things to say, reminding me why I value an active and caring government at all levels. The entirety of Middlebury’s rail project was a model example of the best that government can be.

There was one moment in the dedication ceremony however that gave me pause. Rev. Paul Olsson of St. Stephen’s Church was the final speaker introduced just before the formal dedication by the town was read aloud. It was entirely appropriate for Olsson to speak here, given St. Stephen’s proximity to and participation in the entire rail project. Unfortunately, he was not introduced like the other speakers to merely “offer comments” as the Addison Independent incompletely reported on page 15A on Aug. 26, but he was rather introduced on the part of the town explicitly to give a prayer.

The sentiments Olsson expressed were all quite fine and uplifting, but for the repeated invocation of God, which, on the part of the town government, is a violation of the freedom of conscience of every attendee, and of the First Amendment of the Constitution, the type of thing I’d expect a diligent free press to be on the watch for. The participation of the governor and the state Department of Transportation office only clarified that this was a governmental ceremony and that all speakers were speaking on behalf of the town government, and even with the imprimatur of the state.

I wish the government participants had remembered their duty to all their citizens and that Rev. Olsson here had considered the inappropriateness of his participating in this way. How would he have felt if the town had had an atheist invocation, explicitly asking only non-believers to celebrate the new park? Had Olsson only left out his mentions of God, his speech would have been a perfectly appropriate and welcome solemnification of the entire ceremony.

Instead, it was an unfortunate overreach on the part of the local government, unconstitutionally supporting a religious point of view over the rights of citizens to make their own choices of whom to worship and when to pray, if at all. This act unlawfully excluded and prevented atheists, Buddhists, freethinkers, and other non-God worshippers from fully participating in their government last Saturday, as well as violating the rights of every citizen there. I hope all parties involved remember this and do better to support all citizens in the future.

Thank you.

Kris Diehl


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