Tuesday, December 21, 2004

ESTES PARK, Colo. — Voters in this woodsy mountain village will decide soon whether to recall a member of the town’s Board of Trustees who refuses to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

David Habecker, a two-term member of the board, faces a Feb. 15 recall vote after drawing the community’s ire for refusing to stand because he objects to the phrase “under God.”

He said the wording violates Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

“This makes the Pledge a religious test for public office,” said Mr. Habecker, who works as a building designer. “It’s establishing a requirement for people who want to run for this office: You have to be religious. You have to believe in God.”

Trustee Lori Jeffrey-Clark said Mr. Habecker shocked many voters and other trustees with his decision. During a September meeting, Mr. Habecker announced that he would no longer take part in the Pledge until Congress or the courts removed the words “under God.”

“We were just kind of stunned. We had no idea he felt this way or that he had this sensitivity,” said Mrs. Jeffrey-Clark, a retired Navy officer.

The seven-member, nonpartisan board began reciting the Pledge at the start of meetings in May at Mrs. Jeffrey-Clark’s request. For the next three months, Mr. Habecker stood and joined the other trustees.

The recall effort followed shortly after Mrs. Jeffrey-Clark took her 10-year-old nephew and his Cub Scout troop to a September board meeting to fulfill a civics requirement.

“I told the Scouts that Mr. Habecker has a First Amendment right to make a statement by sitting down during the Pledge,” Mrs. Jeffrey-Clark said. “But I also have a right as a citizen to make a statement. So I told him that I was disappointed with his action, that it offended me and that I wanted my vote back.”

Her husband, Richard Clark, organized a group that gathered signatures from 246 registered voters. The town of 5,500 requires 218 signatures for a recall. The Feb. 15 ballot also will include names of candidates seeking to replace Mr. Habecker if the recall succeeds, although so far no one has signed up to run.

Mr. Habecker said he initially recited the Pledge at meetings, but that “it just didn’t feel right.” He decided to do some research on the Constitution, and when he came across Article VI, Clause 3, “it was like a light bulb going off,” he said.

“Once you know something is wrong, you need to stop doing it,” he said.

Ideally, he said, the other trustees would respect his protest by ignoring it. But his critics argued that Mr. Habecker was the one who pushed the issue into the spotlight.

They said that Mr. Habecker also has publicly criticized President Bush and religious conservatives. He recently took a swipe at the YMCA of the Rockies, which operates a nearby conference center and cabins, for “hiding behind the cross,” Mrs. Jeffrey-Clark said.

“He’s making a personal protest while sitting as an elected official on the board,” said Mr. Clark. “This is the disrespect he’s showing to his constituents.”

The issue has energized the community and fueled worldwide debate on a host of conservative and atheist Web sites alike, such as FreeRepublic.com and the ChurchofCriticalThinking.com. Each side says it has received numerous phone calls and e-mails in support of its stance, and letters on the subject are running regularly in the Estes Park Trail Gazette newspaper.

The recall is the first in the 87-year history of Estes Park, better known for its pristine forests and large, free-roaming elk population than its politics. Located about 70 miles northwest of Denver, the community sits adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park.

The town’s other claim to fame is the elegant Stanley Hotel, which inspired the 1980 Stanley Kubrick movie “The Shining,” starring Jack Nicholson.

Mr. Habecker, who has served on the council for 13 of the last 20 years, is no stranger to tight races. In one election, he and his opponent finished tied, and he won his seat on a coin toss.

He plans to fight the recall, but his critics predicted that his electoral luck has run out.

“We as Americans are taking a stand. Let the people’s voice be heard,” Mr. Clark said. “The silent majority has had it.”

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