GILLETTE – A Gillette man is suing the city of Gillette for $24.25 million for violating his religious rights guaranteed by the Wyoming Constitution.
Bruce Williams, a local atheist, alleges that since 2014 he’s been the victim of “conspiratorial oppression” by the city, and that the city has violated state law not once, not twice, but 97 separate times.
This includes not allowing him the right number of invocations per year, not allowing him to talk to the City Council about this in a public meeting, “using preferred religion as control” and three instances where members of the City Council walked out as he was about to give an invocation.
Williams is seeking $250,000 in damages for each violation of state statute, which comes out to $24,250,000.
“For these 9 years the city has treated my rights like they were nothing but horse manure and I find that very hard to accept,” he wrote in a petition that he filed in District Court last week.
The city showed a preference for Christian leaders over non-religious people, Williams said, by using a group of local pastors to pick who could give invocations and when.
Williams said atheists should be allotted two invocations per year at a minimum in order to be representative of Gillette’s population.
Some churches had more than one invocation per year while allowing Williams one, except in 2017 and 2018, when he did two.
He said the city “hid this arrangement” with the Christian group “by never announcing it in public, never advertising for invocation givers, and never telling me I was under the thumb of this Christian group.”
He said that if the roles were reversed, there would be an outrage.
“What do you think would happen if all of a sudden the city decided no preacher could give an invocation unless an atheist would approve it? There would be a bum rush on somebody,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
He said he was unaware of this until he reached out to Sage Bear, chair of the Campbell County Public Library Board, to see if he could give an invocation. She said she would “check with her pastor” to see if it was OK. If not for that, “I would still be unaware of these 9 years of conspiratorial oppression by the City,” Williams wrote.
He also reached out to the county on this issue, and after discussing it in a public meeting, “they took some positive action to align with the law.”
During past invocations, Williams said that several years ago the City Council made a point of standing up when the former mayor made the statement that everybody “stand for the invocation,” then walked out when he was about to give the invocation. He said three of the council members did this for the first three years he gave invocations.
“When this many people collude to defraud you of your rights you know that a minor slap on the wrist is not going to solve anything. This kind of treatment is the kind that results in wars and the killing of many people,” Williams wrote.
On Nov. 4, 2014, Williams was scheduled to give the invocation. As he was about to do so, three City Council members walked out.
Williams was scheduled again for an invocation on May 5, 2015. Archived footage of the meeting shows that the camera was focused tightly on the mayor, but one council member can be seen walking out. Williams said this was a deliberate attempt to prevent “recording a deliberate molestation of me because I was not of the preferred religion.”
And finally, on Feb. 16, 2016, three council members walked out, Williams said, but the camera angle on GPA was focused on the mayor, so that anyone watching on TV could not see the council members leave.
“The city knew they were doing something wrong when they started doing this,” he said. “If they thought they were doing the right thing to begin with, they would’ve left the camera alone.”
Williams said the council members could have simply waited out in the hallway during his invocation, then apologized for being late once he was finished.
“It would be hard to prove that they did it deliberately and even if it was deliberate people may have understood that they were just uncomfortable with the situation and did not want to make a political statement against my beliefs,” he wrote. “But rather their actions were just so they did not have to acknowledge something they didn’t believe.”
Williams wrote that these actions were meant to publicly humiliate him, and that they “effectively” sent the message that the city government disapproved of his religious beliefs.
He also accuses the city of refusing his right to petition the government by not allowing him to bring this up in a public meeting.
When he emailed city staff, he was given the opportunity to speak with them privately, and that if he wanted, he could bring this up during the public comment period.
“Gillette is getting a bad reputation for having some very backdoor politics running this town,” he said. “I knew that I didn’t want this to happen in private. I didn’t want the people to get the idea that I’m just another conniving atheist that just wants money. I want it out in public so when I talk to them, everybody could understand what my complaint was.”
Williams said if the city was willing to talk about this openly, all of this could’ve been avoided.
“The city told me, basically, ‘Stick it. We’re not going to talk to you,'” he said. “That is not the solution to this problem, unfortunately. This court case is going to be the solution.”
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