Anatomy of a Prayer Breakfast (March 2001)

The piety of politicians is legendary, so it should not have surprised us when Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Scott McCallum announced he would start his inaugural day with a prayer breakfast.

McCallum follows Tommy Thompson as Wisconsin’s governor, since President Bush appointed Thompson to his cabinet to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

McCallum’s prayer breakfast would be held in his home town of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, newspapers announced. Naively, we envisioned a setting in a church basement, or possibly the banquet room of a local hotel.

But then came the surprising news. The prayer breakfast would take place at the publicly-owned Commons of the Fond du Lac branch of the University of Wisconsin, and, according to McCallum’s office, would be paid for with public funds.

Whoa! A Foundation letter went out to McCallum challenging the constitutionality of this action and encouraging a secular inaugural.

The response from a staffer was that the media got it wrong! It wasn’t a prayer breakfast after all; it was an inaugural breakfast, and taxpayers would not be paying for it. It would be paid for by McCallum’s campaign fund. Now we had two versions of what was going on.

Trying to figure out the puzzle, we got a copy of the press release sent from McCallum’s office announcing the prayer breakfast. Indeed, it was not a media error. It was there in black and white in the press release, “prayer breakfast.”

We confirmed with the University in Fond du Lac that rent was being charged for the Commons (a modest $150.00), although exactly who is paying for that and for the catering is still unclear. The final program referred to an inaugural breakfast, but it was reported that a Catholic priest prayed, an Episcopal clergyman prayed and an obscure civil servant prayed. Which would have been acceptable had the ceremony been conducted privately, not on the taxpayers’ dollar, and not in a taxpayer-owned public building.

There is no question that religion is intruding more and more in government, at every level. Our objections may not always be heeded, but they must be made.

We urge each reader to constitute a Committee of One to protest state-church entanglement at the community level, as well as in state capitals and Washington, D.C.

One of the reasons President Bush feels free to launch his mammoth, unconstitutional state-church entanglement projects is because there has not been enough pressure and an outcry against entanglement at lower levels.

Churches and tax-exempt religious property abound in our country. Let politicians practice their religion there.

–Anne Nicol Gaylor
Freedom From Religion Foundation

Freedom From Religion Foundation