State/Church Watchdog Objects to Largo Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast

FFRF Objection Brings Semi-Reform; FFRF Presses for Full Separation of Mayor’s Office from Event After the national Freedom From Religion Foundation lodged a formal objection to Largo’s unconstitutional practice of hosting a city mayor’s prayer breakfast, the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Chamber of Commerce announced today it has belatedly taken over sponsorship.

The Foundation had objected to 33 years of sponsorship by the mayor’s office of the annual Largo Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, scheduled to take place this year at the Christian Life Enrichment Center at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Largo on May 4. Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Carlos Peña will be the guest speaker.

On behalf of complainants in Largo, as well as the Foundation’s 700 Florida members and 14,000 members nationwide, Foundation staff attorney Rebecca Kratz wrote Mayor Patricia Gerard on April 18, urging her to immediately discontinue using City resources and taxpayer funds to plan, organize and promote the upcoming Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast.” The City of Largo advertises the event on the official city website. The mayor’s name and title are prominently listed on the promotional materials being distributed for the event. Most egregious, according to the Foundation, is the fact that the City of Largo’s website advertises that tickets are available only at City Hall.  Today’s St. Petersburg Times reported that “The Largo/Mid-Pinellas Chamber of Commerce will sponsor the 33rd annual Mayor’s Interfaith Prayer Breakfast.”

“The program, officiated by Largo Mayor Patricia Gerard, will feature music, fellowship and words of inspiration,” the Times news blurb reported.

“It’s being held in conjunction with the National Day of Prayer, created to unite communities in a spirit of love and understanding.” The news blurb announced that tickets are available at the chamber’s offices “or at Largo City Hall.” Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor faxed a letter this morning to the Mayor’s Office: “This is our second formal request that your office cease and desist selling tickets, using the Mayor’s Office, website, staff (or volunteers on City property) to promote the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast and to sell tickets.”

In her letter, Gaylor noted the Foundation is pleased, after being told by the City that they would not budge in their sponsorship, to see some change. But, “We are concerned that this is in name only, to deflect criticism, since the City of Largo website as of this morning still lists that the City is sponsoring the event and is the only source of tickets. Simply making tickets available through a second party does not remedy the constitutional violation.”

Gaylor commented that the event should also be billed as Largo Prayer Breakfast, not Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. The National Prayer Breakfast is not called the “Presidential” or “Congressional” Prayer Breakfast, nor should the City of Largo’s imprimatur be on this event. Wrote Kratz in her original letter of complaint on behalf of the Foundation: “The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from endorsing, advancing or promoting religion. Therefore, it is grossly illegal and inappropriate for the City to be hosting, organizing, supporting or otherwise promoting a patently religious event, such as a prayer breakfast. This practice, which has been recurring for the last three decades, certainly has the effect of government endorsement of religion. The official prayer breakfast located at the Christian Enrichment Center sends the message that the City not only prefers religion over non-religion, but also Christianity over all other religions. It alienates nonbelievers in Largo by turning them into political outsiders in their own community.”

The City’s nonresponsive letter dated April 20 excused the sponsorship because the event “is held in conjunction with the National Day of Prayer.” The Foundation has filed two suits—one in federal court naming Pres. Obama and Wis. Gov. Jim Doyle as well as Shirley Dobson, chair of the National Day of Prayer Taskforce, the other suing the Governor of Colorado in state court—against the issuance of National Day of Prayer proclamations by executive offices. An attorney on behalf of the city further stated: “The City of Largo does not stand alone in its efforts to foster fellowship, inspiration and understanding during these difficult times. Several cities throughout the United States and their mayors host such events, modeled after the National Prayer Breakfast.”

The Foundation’s federal lawsuit alleges that the ties between government officials and such evangelical Christian groups as Focus on the Family, which runs the National Day of Prayer Taskforce, has led to countless Establishment Clause violations at the federal, state and local levels. Said Foundation co-president Dan Barker, “This 33 year violation, specifically tied to the National Day of Prayer, shows the harm of uniting government and faith to our secular way of government. Churches and ministerial associations, private clubs, are free to pray, to issue days of prayer, to organize prayer breakfasts, but it is manifestly unconstitutional for government to get into the prayer business.”  

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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