The city of Hattiesburg, Miss., shouldn't be using city resources and public tax dollars to promote a May 2 religious observance, FFRF Staff Attorney Elizabeth Cavell told Mayor Johnny L. DuPree in an April 9 letter of complaint.
The event being publicized as the "Mayor's Annual Prayer Breakfast" is being held at the city-owned Lake Terrace Convention Center and features renowned gospel singer Andraé Crouch, who is also a Church of God in Christ pastor.
According to information on the city's website, tickets ($40 or $320 for a table) can only be purchased by sending payment to the city. The registration form asks for checks made payable to “Mayor’s Community Activity Fund.”
A city press release directs those interested in learning more about the religious event to Kathleen Hartfield, a city administrative assistant whose city phone number is included.
The city's promotional materials include a quote from Mark 9:29, “And he said to them, This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” The breakfast coincides with the evangelical National Day of Prayer. "Given the high degree of city involvement and entanglement in the event, this conduct is government espousal of religion," Cavell noted. "The city must refrain from expending any further taxpayer dollars, using publicly funded employees and drawing on any other publicly funded resources to promote the religious prayer breakfast."
She added that it's not uncommon for ministerial associations or private groups to host a prayer breakfast and invite public officials, who attend as individuals, which is the case at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. "But 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."
DuPree was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2012 (the first African-American since Reconstruction in that position). Republican Phil Bryant won the election by 22 percentage points.
FFRF also filed an open records request with the city. It asks for financial records and correspondence and call records in connection with the event.