Wednesday, March 23, 2005

DENVER — Voters in Estes Park, Colo., removed town trustee David Habecker from office Tuesday in a recall election that hinged on his refusal to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at town meetings.

Mr. Habecker, who lost by a vote of 903-605, said he is considering whether to pursue further legal action to overturn the recall outcome, arguing that the voters had infringed upon his First Amendment rights. A 12-year trustee and self-described agnostic, Mr. Habecker refused to stand for the Pledge because he objects to the words “under God,” which he described as unconstitutional and “un-American.”

“It was a conscientious objection on my part. To take a loyalty oath before the meeting starts — that’s not American,” Mr. Habecker said. “This country was founded on religious tolerance. This wasn’t religious tolerance.”

His opponents, who organized as the Estes Park Citizens for Responsive Government last fall to push the recall, said the trustee’s anti-Pledge stance showed that he was out of touch with his constituents.

“I think the voters understood that this was about representation,” said town trustee Lori Jeffrey-Clark, whose husband, Richard Clark, helped lead the recall. “People just said, ‘Wait a minute — you’re sitting on our board, and you don’t represent us.’ I think they just decided that his views aren’t ours.”

Mrs. Jeffrey-Clark said she was confident that the election results would stand up in the face of a lawsuit.

“The state statute on recalls doesn’t even say you have to have a reason to recall someone,” she said. “They could recall me because I’m short and squat. It’s really up to the people.”

At the same time, voters elected Richard Homeier, a local businessman and recall supporter, to replace Mr. Habecker. Mr. Homeier, who is scheduled to be sworn in at the April 12 meeting, defeated a Habecker supporter, John Ericson, by a vote of 466-337.

Recall proponents said they were aided by high voter turnout. About 1,500 of the picturesque mountain town’s 4,000 voters cast ballots, twice as many as in last spring’s election.

Mr. Habecker blamed the “inflammatory” tone of the campaign for his defeat, saying his opponents portrayed him in ads and mailings as anti-American.

“They said I turned my back on the flag, that I’m not patriotic, that I didn’t support the troops in Iraq, which is completely false,” he said.

The debate began in May, when Mrs. Jeffrey-Clark proposed that the town board of trustees recite the Pledge before each meeting. Her proposal was approved, and trustees said the Pledge without incident for several months.

Then Mr. Habecker said he would no longer recite the oath, arguing that it infringed upon his rights to free speech and freedom of religion. Instead, he sat during the Pledge.

Mr. Clark and others began organizing a recall shortly thereafter, collecting enough signatures to put the proposal on the Feb. 15 ballot. Mr. Habecker sued, winning an injunction and a five-week delay while a federal judge considered the issue.

Two weeks ago, District Court Judge Edward Nottingham lifted the injunction, and the trustees set the election for Tuesday. Mr. Habecker’s lawsuit also asks for relief from infringements on his First Amendment rights.

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