FFRF rebukes S.C. mayor for COVID-19 prayer proclamation

Sumter

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is castigating a South Carolina mayor for an official prayer proclamation that appears to be a misbegotten response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Sumter Mayor Joseph T. McElveen Jr. declared in his official capacity on March 18 “a special communitywide day of thanksgiving and prayer in Sumter.” The proclamation, which features the official seal of the city of Sumter and names McElveen in his capacity as mayor, cites two exclusively Christian religious texts and explicitly encourages citizens to pray as a way of dealing with the pandemic.

FFRF is chastising the mayor for the misguided prayer declaration.

“As mayor, you represent a diverse population that consists of not only Christians, but also atheists and agnostics who do not believe in prayer,” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write to McElveen. “Your proclamation urging citizens to pray, made in your official capacity, unabashedly promotes a religious event, sending an official message of endorsement of religion over nonreligion and of exclusion to the 24 percent of Americans, including 38 percent of young Americans, who are not religious. It alienates non-Christians and nonbelievers in Sumter by turning them into political outsiders in their own community.”

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages, FFRF underscores. The Supreme Court has said time and again that the “First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.” The mayor’s proclamation and participation in this event sends the message that he and the city of Sumter officially prefer and endorse the Christian faith.

The separation between state and church is among one of the most fundamental principles of our system of government, FFRF underlines. The Supreme Court has specifically stated, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Government officials may not provide credibility or prestige to their religion by lending a government office and government title to religious events. Their office and title belong to “We the people,” not the office’s temporary occupant. That’s why as a matter of policy, government sponsorship of any day of prayer event is inappropriate and unnecessary.

FFRF reminds McElveen that as mayor, he is charged with great responsibility, especially in these trying times, and has been given significant trust by citizens, including those citizens who may not share his personal religious viewpoints. Leaving prayer as a private matter for private citizens is the wisest public policy. Instead of encouraging prayer as a way of coping with the coronavirus scourge, the mayor should instead roll up his sleeves and get to work.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 30,000 members across the country, including hundreds in South Carolina. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

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