June 2004 Church & State | People & Events

Weary of attempts by Religious Right groups to co-opt the National Day of Prayer and turn it into an event catered toward fundamentalist Christians, Americans United activists in Oklahoma took a different tack this year: a celebration of religious freedom that included everyone from Christians, Jews and Muslims to non-believers.

The idea was conceived by Bruce Prescott, a member of the Americans United Board of Trustees and a Southern Baptist minister. Prescott, who heads the group Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, worked with other Oklahoma organizations to put on a truly inclusive event.

In years past, Religious Right organizations held National Day of Prayer events on the south steps of the Capitol Building in Oklahoma City but limited participation to conservative Christians who met their theological litmus test. This year, a group called Stop Theocracy in Oklahoma Policy (STOP) applied for a permit to use the area.

STOP and the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United invited the organizers of the National Day of Prayer event to attend the interfaith gathering, but they refused. Instead, they met inside the Capitol building in the second-floor rotunda.

Outside, a crowd of about 110 enjoyed the broad-based rally. The Daily Okla­homan reported on the activities and ran a photo of Jim Huff, executive secretary of the AU chapter, ringing a bell during the event. (The organizers turned "Let Free­dom Ring," the official 2004 theme of the NDP Task Force, into an expression of pluralism and religious liberty.)

Speakers celebrated the religious and philosophical freedom ingrained in the First Amendment.

"If we're praying for our country, doesn't the nation include religious liberty for all religions that are here in America?" asked Barbara Boyd, a Presbyterian minister.

Saad Muhammad, who represented the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, told the newspaper the event helped bridge the divide among religions.

"I thought it was a great opportunity to show people that all different faiths exist in the community," he said.

Matt McNeil of STOP remarked that non-believers support freedom of religion and freedom from religion. He criticized fundamentalists for trying to merge church and state.

"The very thing that has enabled the strength of religion in this country is the very thing that the fundamentalists are fighting," he said. "They're killing the goose that laid the golden egg."

Inside the Capitol, Lt. Gov. Mary Fallin told a crowd of several hundred not to worry that they were bumped from their usual location.

"Sometimes God has a way of working things out that are different," Fallin said. "What's wrong with being in the heart of government – right in the center?"

In other news about prayer in government:

In Florida, organizers of NDP events made sure that a conservative Christian focus was maintained. Pam Olsen, president of the Florida Prayer Network, told the Palm Beach Sun-Sentinel that her group did not have to allow non-Christian faiths to participate because they could organize their own events.

"This is open to anyone," Olsen said. "It's not fair for them to say we hijacked this. All other religious groups are open to have their own events."

In the state capital of Tallahassee, a staff member of the state Department of Juvenile Justice posted a link about the NDP to the department's website. The link led readers to the home page of the Florida Prayer Network, an organization that uses its site to encourage people to be baptized, to profess their faith in Jesus and to allow the Holy Spirit to control their lives.

Americans United and various local religious leaders quickly objected.

Murtaza Kakli, a Muslim, was not pleased.

"This is not a Christian nation," he said. "There are all kinds of religions in this country.... These right-wingers, to me, do not seem to be tolerating people other than Christians."

Jewish leader William Galnick agreed, observing that the annual prayer day "has become more and more and more a problem for many faith communities because it tends to be so evangelically dominated."

After inquiries from the news media, state officials promptly removed the link.

"That link should not have been there," department spokeswoman Catherine Arnold told the Palm Beach Post. "We had the site up and were working on it, and somehow it got posted."

In Carson City, Nev., a National Day of Prayer event at the Capitol Building evolved into a rally against church-state separation.

"The only thing separating church and state right now is the shoe leather you're wearing," joked the Rev. Patrick Propster of Calvary Chapel. "So if you want to take off your shoes, there will be no separation between church and state."

In Minnesota, An NDP event turned political when Mary Kiffmeyer, Minnesota secretary of state, attacked church-state separation. Kiffmeyer, a Republican, said the "five words" that are "probably most destructive" in America today are "separation of church and state."

Nick Coleman, a columnist with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, later asked Kiffmeyer to explain her comments. She replied, "It's not the words that are destructive, it's the way they are interpreted. There are a lot of good church people who don't think they can be involved in government."

Coleman reported that Kiffmeyer has in the past offered $100 to anyone who can find "separation of church and state" in the Constitution.

The event, Coleman reported, included no Jews, Muslims or Hindus. He reported that it also had strong partisan overtones.

"[T]he prayers seemed tailored for a very Republican God," he wrote.

In New York, First Lady Laura Bush headlined a May 11 governor's prayer breakfast that critics dubbed "pay to pray." New York Gov. George Pataki offered VIP tables at a cost of $500 to $1,000 apiece. General admission tickets were $30 each, up from $25 last year.

Some critics questioned the propriety of merging political fund-raising with religion.

"If people want to pray, more power to them," Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group told Newsday. "But my guess is most of these people are praying for access."

The event sparked controversy when it was announced. Some state employees complained about an e-mail from an official with the state Labor Department urging them to buy tickets. New York's attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, later learned that the Governor's Prayer Breakfast Trust Fund had failed to register as a charitable organization and ordered it to do so.

In Beaverton, Ore., organizers of a prayer breakfast had to cancel the event after a controversy over the exclusion of a Muslim leader.

The breakfast was planned by the Beaverton Chapter of the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship and Con­cerned Citizens. Beaverton Mayor Rob Drake originally planned to attend and asked Rabbi David Rosenberg of Portland and Shahriar Ahmed, president of the Bilal Mosque Association in Beaverton, to attend as well.

Ahmed was scheduled to give the closing prayer at the May 5 event, but when the Fellowship's steering committee learned about that, they balked. Ahmed was barred from participating by a 7-1 vote.

Drake then dropped out of the breakfast, as did Rosenberg and several other mayors and local political figures in the area. Drake said most of the e-mail messages he received from the community supported him.

"I appreciate the community's outpouring of support for diversity, tolerance and understanding," Drake told the Portland Oregonian.

In New Hanover County, N.C., the director of the Department of Social Services has agreed to stop sponsoring prayers at staff meetings after receiving complaints from several employees.

LaVaughn Nesmith agreed to drop the practice after at least 15 employees complained. One wrote in an employee survey, "Separation of church and state is the law. DSS is not a church and workers who want to go to church can do so on their own time at their own church – not at work at a government agency."

County Manager Allen O'Neal told the Wilmington Star News that Nesmith had agreed to stop the practice.

"We work hard to have an environment that is not offensive to anyone," he said.