A controversy over prayer is brewing in Alabama, and for once some state residents believe a public official may have gone too far with a display of official piety.
Yesterday, Twinkle Cavanaugh, the elected president of the Alabama Public Service Commission, said she stands by a prayer that was delivered last month at a service commission meeting, despite a poll taken by the news site AL.com that found 79 percent of voters think it wasn’t appropriate in that context.
Remember, this is Alabama, folks. Most people there aren’t exactly big fans of church-state separation, so that means the prayer must have been really bad. And it was.
The invocation was given by John Jordan, a member of East Memorial Baptist Church in Pratville, and “a dear friend” of Cavanaugh’s. She asked everyone to stand, and then Jordan said some pretty offensive stuff.
“We’ve taken you [God] out of our schools and out of our prayers,” Jordan said. “We have murdered your children. We’ve said it’s okay to have same-sex marriage. We have sinned and we ask once again that you forgive us for our sins.”
He also prayed that everyone be able to put God first and closed by invoking the name of Jesus.
Some people were nonplused. Why was a statement like this being delivered before a body charged with the task of regulating public utilities? In response to the backlash, Cavanaugh really dug in her heels, saying: “I don’t back down. It’s important that we call on the Lord.”
She expanded upon that in a statement to the Huffington Post: “My Christian faith guides me in everything that I do, and I’m proud that the Alabama Public Service Commission opens each meeting seeking His divine guidance and thanking God for the blessings He has given us. I make no apologies as a Christian elected into public service by the people of Alabama. Without a doubt, our nation needs more prayer, not less.”
Cavanaugh seems to be saying that her actions are just an expression of her faith, but one Alabama newspaper columnist thinks something a bit more sinister may be going on here. John Archibald, writer for the Birmingham News, said Cavanaugh is using her piety to distract state residents from the fact that Alabama Power, which claims to provide electricity “at rates below the national average,” is actually raking in huge profits at great expense to the public.
Archibald noted Cavanaugh is the head of a state “quasi-judicial regulatory body,” and she is supposed to be holding meetings on Alabama Power’s rate structure. That should be her only concern, he wrote. But Cavanaugh doesn’t want ordinary citizens to focus on her actual duties, so she brings in distractions like Jordan, hoping her constituents won’t notice that a powerful utility company is getting a sweet deal.
“[Alabama Power’s rate] structure…is high for residential customers and low for industry,” Archibald wrote. “It allows the company to write off an $8 million salary for CEO Charles McCrary as Operations and Maintenance, at a government-regulated monopoly. It lets the company take a return on equity 30-40 percent higher than the national average, according to testimony today that was not disputed, and allows it to take hundreds of millions in higher profits that could be saved by ratepayers and pumped back into the economy.”
Of course Americans United doesn’t take a stand on how power companies are regulated. What we can tell you, though, is that Cavanaugh is showing an obvious favoritism toward Christianity, and that is neither appropriate for her position nor is it constitutional.
Americans United will be arguing a case this fall before the U.S. Supreme Court that may decide the limits of prayer before government meetings, but regardless of how that turns out, elected officials like Cavanaugh need to remember that they weren’t put into office to be pastors and that they serve a diverse constituency – even in a place like Alabama.
Cavanaugh needs to drop the public piety and focus on power prices.