FFRF cries ‘Mayday!’ on multiple public prayer events

Pious mayors, governors and other public officials prayed in record numbers in early May across the land for national and state Day of Prayer events and local prayer breakfasts.

FFRF’s legal staff headed by Senior Attorney Rebecca Markert sent letters of objection to Govs. Scott Walker (Wisconsin), Steve Beshear (Kentucky), Mike Beebe (Arizona), Jerry Brown (California), and Rick Scott (Florida). Letters were sent to mayors in Carmel, Ind., Biddeford, Maine; Zephryrhillis, Fla.; Bentonville, Ark.; Tampa, Fla.; and Florence, Ala. A complaint also went to the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Other letters went to:

• Mayor Larry Melton, Odessa, Texas. An open records request showed the city’s public information coordinator promoted the mayor’s prayer event with a press release and scheduled many interviews promoting it. The city secretary, Norma Aguilar, coordinated the prayer logistics, signed the contracts, etc. This year’s keynote speaker, Rev. Don Piper, author of “90 Minutes in Heaven” and “Heaven is Real,” charged a $2,500 honorarium plus expenses. The city actively solicited sponsorships, apparently during the business day.

• Rogers, Ark. Mayor Greg Hines’ Prayer Breakfast was organized and sponsored by the Mayor’s Office with tickets sold at City Hall.

• Springdale, Ark. Tickets for the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast could be purchased at the Mayor’s Office. Markert noted that while Greg Sprouse could attend a privately sponsored event in his personal capacity, “It is absolutely unlawful, inappropriate and unseemly, under the First Amendment to host such an event or work in tandem with event organizers to put on the breakfast.”

FFRF received some editorial support for its view, including from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on May 14:

“The cities should not be seen as contributing in any way to the organization of these prayer breakfasts which, while open to everyone, are obviously Christian-oriented events (the one in Rogers was held at Cross Church). A city employee using time on the clock to sell tickets or perform other work related to the breakfasts is crossing the line. Someone else can do this kind of work strictly on a volunteer basis without using resources bought by the taxpayers. That might satisfy the group from Wisconsin, but more importantly, it’s the right thing to do.”

FFRF keeps fighting nativity nonsense

The Ellwood City, Pa., nativity saga in response to an FFRF complaint continues. In April, the Citizens Nativity Location Committee submitted a plan to create a public forum in front of the Municipal Building.

The forum, consisting of one lot, would only allow displays from Dec. 5 through Jan. 15 and be assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Nonresidents would have to wait 30 days before submitting applications. Borough Councilman John Todorich admitted to the Ellwood City Ledger that the purpose of the policy is to keep out FFRF: “We need to make it tight enough that we don’t have off-the-wall groups come in here and force our hand.”

Nativity Committee Vice Chairman Mike Parisi’s Facebook comments were illuminating: “This proposal will allow us to keep the Nativity Display right where its [sic] at.”

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott, with research and drafting assistance from Andrew Seidel, FFRF constitutional consultant, sent a follow-up letter to the borough’s solicitor explaining the pitfalls of the open forum policy:

“Other local governments have opened forums to encourage nativities with disastrous results. Santa Monica, Calif., was swamped with controversial displays and a cumbersome lottery system after opening a public forum. Loudoun County, Va., opened a forum, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Jedis, and atheists raised displays next to a crèche. Both Loudon County and Santa Monica are considering closing the forums they opened less than three years ago.”

Citing Supreme Court precedent, the letter hammered home the fact that “government may not grant the use of a forum to people whose views it finds acceptable, but deny use to those wishing to express less favored or more controversial views.”

The letter also cited a string of court precedents to show that ”freedom of speech cannot be burdened, inhibited, or contingent upon residency.”

The Borough Council has not voted on the proposal and no vote is scheduled.

Town welcomes signs of biblical proportions

FFRF is working to cement what looked like a victory in Sylvania, Ala., but has stalled after the cooperative mayor was forced to resign in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct.

The town of about 2,000 features four “Welcome” signs which include bible verses, erected at public expense in various locations. A week after FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott’s letter of complaint April 17, Mayor Mitchell Dendy agreed to paint over the unconstitutional endorsements of religion.

Then, a few days later, Dendy got a pink slip from DeKalb County Sheriff Jimmy Harris, who fired him as the county’s chief jail administrator, the Fort Payne Times-Journal reported. The Town Council accepted Dendy’s resignation as mayor May 1. Citizens have also petitioned to rename Dendy Road.

Harris said Dendy was fired for repeated violations of departmental policy and procedure directives related to alleged sexual misconduct, improprieties and harassment.

The council called a special meeting May 8 and, without discussion, voted 5-0 to put the verses back on the signs. Council member Tony Goolesby claimed that Dendy never told the council about FFRF’s letter or his decision to blot out the verses because the town couldn’t afford a legal battle.

“The council doesn’t feel like it is a violation,” Goolesby said. The quotations are now back on signs.

FFRF would like to sue if the quotes aren’t removed, said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Legally, this is sort of a slam dunk.”

FFRF requests probe of Illinois bishop

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert sent a letter April 20 to the Internal Revenue Service to alert the agency to political comments by Catholic Bishop Daniel Jenky in his April 14 sermon at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Ill.

Jenky sharply criticized President Barack Obama and referred to the 2012 presidential election, stating, “Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services, and health care. In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama, with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path.

“Now things have come to such a pass in America that this is a battle that we could lose, but before the awesome judgment seat of Almighty God, this is not a war where any believing Catholic may remain neutral. This fall, every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences, or by the following fall our Catholic schools, our Catholic hospitals, our Catholic Newman Centers, all our public ministries — only excepting our church buildings — could easily be shut down.”

Markert’s letter to the IRS Exempt Organizations Examination Office in Dallas noted that such speech is illegal campaign intervention for a tax-exempt organization, according to IRS regulations which ban participation in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

While leaders of religious groups may express opinions on political matters as individuals, they are precluded from making “partisan comments in official organization publications or at official functions of the organization.”

The letter identified key factors the IRS uses to determine if advocacy is political campaign intervention. Whether the statement:

• Identifies one or more candidates for a given public office.

• Expresses approval or disapproval for one or more candidates’ positions and/or actions.

• Is delivered close to the election.

• Makes reference to voting or an election.

• Addresses an issue distinguishing candidates for a given office.

• Is part of an ongoing series of communications on the same issue that are made independent of any election.

• Is related to a nonelectoral event such as a scheduled vote on specific legislation by an officeholder who also happens to be a candidate for public office.

The letter added, “Despite not saying specifically ‘Vote against Barack Obama,’ the bishop’s comments make it abundantly clear that he is opposed to Barack Obama as a candidate. Given that he gave these partisan comments at an official church function — the ‘Call to Catholic Men of Faith’ service — Bishop Jenky violated the 501(c)(3) tax-exempt rules, which prohibit electioneering.”

The letter requested an immediate investigation and action to remedy any violations.

Freedom From Religion Foundation