Georgia county drops prayer breakfast phone line

Freedom From Religion Foundation letters of complaint on behalf of Georgia members about government involvement in the Cobb County Prayer Breakfast led to corrective action by the county.

FFRF received information that Virgil Moon, director of the county's Support Services Agency, was managing an "information line" from his office about the May 5 event in Atlanta, which coincided with the National Day of Prayer. Moon, who also served as president of the breakfast committee, publicly confirmed that the line is “run out of his office, and that his administrative staff is in charge of answering messages requesting information.”

Rebecca Markert, FFRF senior staff attorney, wrote County Manager David Hankerson in Marietta on April 28: "It is grossly inappropriate for Mr. Moon to dedicate a Cobb County telephone line to organize and promote an inherently religious event for the National Day of Prayer.The county cannot expend, even temporarily, government funds and resources to coordinate this event. 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."

Markert added: "The county government cannot engage in any conduct that gives the appearance of endorsing religion. Therefore, the county must take immediate action to disassociate itself from this Christian event. Use of any and all county telephone lines for the purpose of dispensing any information about the prayer breakfast should be discontinued immediately. Any promotional materials giving the county number should be retracted and revised."

Atlanta-area freethought groups had also become involved previously in the issue with protests and a picket. Markert wrote a second letter, on May 5, to County Attorney Dorothy Bishop, detailing the recorded message on the county line:

“The 2011 Cobb County Prayer Breakfast will be held on the National Day of Prayer, Thursday, May 5, at the Cobb Galleria Centre. The program begins at 7 a.m. Our keynote speaker this year is Shan Cooper, vice president of Lockheed-Martin Aeronautics. Ticket price is $20 per person or $200 for a table of 10. Please leave your name and phone number if you would like more information or a reservation form. Thank you. Record your message at the tone. When you are finished, hang up or hold for more options.”

FFRF's local complainant left their name and number and received a return call from Denise Sawyer, presumably a Cobb County employee, who e-mailed a reservation form from a Cobb County e-mail address, with a breakfast information flier attached.

Markert wrote: "The use of the county line, coupled with employees returning phone calls and e-mailing reservation forms through the county e-mail system, demonstrate the county’s apparent coordination of the event and poses serious constitutional separation of state and church concerns. Once again, we ask that you inform us, in writing, of the steps the county is taking to remedy these concerns."

On May 10, Bishop responded by letter. Although denying that the county sponsored or hosted the event, she wrote, "As an aside, you may be interested to know that the challenged phone line is no longer in service, and that the sponsor, Cobb County Prayer Breakfast Inc., has informed me that in the future, one of their members companies will provide any necessary telephone line(s)."

Bishop also defended Moon serving as prayer committee president as a way of "giving back" to the community.

"Hallelujah, praise the Constitution!" said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "It's one thing for county employees to volunteer privately. It's quite another to help orchestrate a Christian prayer event on county time and dime. We're pleased to see an end to this invidious entanglement."

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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