The Freedom From Religion Foundation is busy this week protesting all kinds of National Day of Prayer-related entanglements between government and religion, including violations occurring in two separate states involving mayoral-arranged prayer breakfasts observing the day of prayer.
FFRF, which represents more than 18,000 nonreligious membership and is based in Madison, Wis., serves as a state/church watchdog. In addition to generally protesting the involvement of governors and mayors in prayer events in their official capacity, FFRF has protested several egregious entanglements in which mayoral offices are the primary sponsors and organizers of prayer breakfasts timed with the National Day of Prayer.
Congress has officially deemed the first Thursday in May as the “National Day of Prayer,” and a federal law requires the president to exhort citizens to pray via an annual proclamation. An evangelical group, the self-named National Day of Prayer Taskforce housed at Focus on the Family’s headquarters in Colorado Springs, pressures governors, mayors and others to also promote prayer by governmental edict.
FFRF has formally protested city-sponsored mayor prayer breakfasts, in which the mayor’s office officially sells tickets, arranges and otherwise hosts the prayer events, in:
• Odessa, Texas. FFRF wrote a letter of complaint over the sponsorship of the “Mayor’s Prayer Luncheon 2012,” to Mayor Larry Melton, mayor of Odessa. FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert followed up with an open records request, which revealed that the city’s public information coordinator actively promotes the mayor’s prayer luncheon through an annual press release and schedules many interviews promoting the prayer luncheon. The city secretary, Norma Aguilar, coordinates the prayer logistics, signs the contracts, etc. This year’s keynote speaker, Rev. Don Piper, author of “90 Minutes in Heaven” and “Heaven is Real,” is charging a $2,500 honorarium plus expenses including airfare, car rental, lodging. The city actively solicits sponsorships, apparently during the business day. Sponsorship letters are mailed out on official city stationery and either signed by the mayor or his secretary.
• Rogers, Ark. A “Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast” is being held tomorrow at Cross Church at Pinnacle Hills in Rogers to coincide with the National Day of Prayer, is sponsored and organized by the Mayor’s Office. Tickets are being sold at Rogers City Hall, and the event is advertised on the City’s website. Markert, in her letter to Mayor Greg Hines, noted: “The City must cease all sponsorship and organization of the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast,” disassociate itself from the event, “and refrain from hosting, organizing, or otherwise coordinating the breakfast in the future. All ticket sales from City offices must be discontinued immediately.”
The city advertises the National Day of Prayer Taskforce theme and bible verse (“Blessed is the national whose god is the lord,” Psalm 33:12). Tickets are available from Rogers City Hall, Christian Book Outlet, and the Cross Church Pinnacle Hills Bookstore. Sponsors start at $300, or tickets are $12.
The Mayor’s office, in publicity for the event, enjoins: “May 3rd is the National Day of Prayer . . . so join us in this inspirational event as we honor God, give thanks for our many blessings and pray for our city.”
FFRF legal intern Ken Earl, who emailed the letter to the Mayor’s office, received a snarky reply from the Rogers city attorney.
• Springdale, Ark. Tickets of $10 each for the May 3 Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast can be purchased directly at the Mayor’s Office. This is the Mayor’s “3rd annual prayer breakfast,” and he is the host. “Pastors and lay people from Springdale churches will participate. Former Arkansas Razorbacks coach Ken Hatfield will speak.” Markert noted that while the could attend a privately sponsored event in his personal capacity, “it is absolutely unlawful, inappropriate and unseemly, under the First Amendment for a mayor’s office itself to host such an event or work in tandem with event organizers to put on the breakfast.”
Additionally, FFRF has written a mayor participating in National Day of Prayer events at his city hall. FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor chastised Mayor Steve Van Gorden, Zephyrhills, Fla., for agreeing to participate at a prayer event at city hall Thursday featuring local religious leaders and church choices.
The National Day of Prayer Taskforce annually organizes numerous evangelical Christian events, often on public property with government speakers, which exclude non-evangelicals and nonChristians.
“We are shocked at the bad manners of these mayors who align themselves with events advertised as ‘Christian evangelicals need only apply.’ This kind of meddling in religion and promotion of one religion over another is what one would expect in a theocracy, not in our secular republic,” said Gaylor.
“FFRF expects to be fielding complaints over other violations related to the National Day of Prayer for the next month,” Gaylor commented. “This is the least popular day of the year for many of our membership, who detest being told what to believe and who to pray to by government officials,” she added.
FFRF won a historic federal court decision declaring the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional in 2010.
“In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience,” wrote U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, Madison, Wis. An appeals court in 2011 threw the case out on standing (not the merits), but FFRF continues to pursue two challenges of gubernatorial prayer proclamations in Colorado and Arizona.