FFRF opposes four National Day of Prayer events around country

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent four letters to elected leaders opposing their upcoming participation in sectarian National Day of Prayer events. Recipients of the FFRF letters include Governor Gary Herbert (Utah), Mayor Duke Bennett (Terre Haute, Ind.), County Manager David Hankerson (Cobb County, Ga.) and Mayor John Fouts of Warren, Mich.

FFRF, a state/church watchdog with more than 16,000 members nationwide, is currently challenging the National Day of Prayer in federal court nationally, in Colorado and in Arizona.

Standing Together, a group of 90 evangelical churches in Utah, organized a prayer rally at the Utah State Capitol, and will host an annual Community Leadership Breakfast "in honor of the National Day of Prayer." Governor Herbert spoke at last year's breakfast.

Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, who co-direct FFRF, urged the governor to refrain from issuing a prayer proclamation and participating in this year's National Day of Prayer events: "The Utah prayer event is contentious and divisive because of the evangelical slant. This event excludes not only the nonreligious but also non-evangelical Christians including Mormons — the dominant faith in Utah —, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, etc."

Mayor Bennett is scheduled to speak at the Terre Haute Mayor's Prayer Breakfast, which coincides with the National Day of Prayer and is hosted by a Christian ministry, the Terre Haute Ministries.

"Promotion of prayer by elected officials unfortunately raises the distasteful appearance of political pandering to appeal to or appease a vocal Christian evangelical constituency," FFRF wrote to the mayor. "There is a distinction between private speech (which may take any position on religion) and governmental speech (which may not be religious or take a religious position). As Mayor you have taken an oath of office to uphold the secular U.S. Constitution, and must scrupulously avoid using your public office to promote or advance your personal religious beliefs."

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, sent a letter to County Manager Hankerson about inappropriate county sponsorship and support of the 2011 Cobb County Prayer Breakfast. The Director of Cobb County's Support Services Agency, Virgil Moon, has dedicated a county telephone line "to organize and promote an inherently religious event for the National Day of Prayer."

"In order to comply with current constitutional dictates, the County must immediately discontinue the practice of expending any taxpayer dollars and public resources to organize, coordinate or otherwise promote the Cobb County Prayer Breakfast," noted Markert.

Markert's letter to the mayor of Warren, Mich., over his National Day of Prayer participation was ignored the previous year. This year's National Day of Prayer event, taking place at Warren City Hall, was advertised on city water bills sent out by the city. (See letter for replica of water bill.) The notice did not list an official sponsor of the prayer breakfast. "It is very troubling that the Mayor would choose to ignore our letter, which was sent on behalf of a local Warren resident. The constitutional concerns addressed in last year's letter have recurred with this year's upcoming event," Markert said.

The 2011 National Day of Prayer takes place Thursday, May 5. The National Day of Prayer was enacted by Congress in 1952 at the behest of Rev. Billy Graham and modified at the urging of Christian evangelicals in 1988. The law orders the president to set aside the first Thursday in May every year “as a National Day of Prayer, on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups and as individuals.” This year's theme is "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," which is a Martin Luther phrase based on the biblical verse Psalm 91:2.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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