March 2007 Church & State | People & Events

U.S. Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black decided not to appear at a Religious Right gathering sponsored by controversial TV preacher D. James Kennedy after Americans United cited concerns.

Black was listed as a speaker on promotional materials produced by Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries, and his photo appeared on a Web site promoting the event, which was scheduled for March 2-3 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

AU staffers have attended the “Reclaiming America for Christ” conferences in previous years. The gatherings are highly partisan and reflect Kennedy’s belief that fundamentalist Christians who believe as he does should take dominion over America.

Black was scheduled to appear alongside such controversial figures as columnist Ann Coulter, Religious Right warhorse Phyllis Schlafly and rabidly anti-abortion priest Frank Pavone.

On Jan. 31, Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, faxed a letter to Black’s office, asking him to pull out of the event.

Lynn’s missive said that the Senate chaplain’s job is to provide religious services to legislators and staffers, and in order to do that effectively, he must respect religious diversity.

“I am a Christian minister, but I find even the title of this conference offensive,” wrote Lynn. “It implies that America is in need of ‘reclaiming’ from some nefarious force that has supposedly taken control of the country. The message Kennedy promotes is one of division and the need to triumph over the perceived enemies of his ministry. (I should also note that past Kennedy conferences have been highly partisan in character.) While Kennedy is free to promote this controversial view through private channels, it should in no way be endorsed by the Senate chaplain.”

Very soon after receiving the letter, Black called Lynn to say he had cancelled his appearance. Black’s spokeswoman, Meg Saunders, later told Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, that the conference was portrayed to Black as a run-of-the-mill gathering that was neither sectarian nor partisan.

Officials at Kennedy’s ministry disputed that and released a copy of an Oct. 3, 2005, letter inviting Black to the conference. It refers to the conference as a two-day event “specifically to inform, train and equip Christians to be salt and light in their own communities.”

The letter goes on to say, “We are certain that your knowledge and experience would encourage individual involvement to help restore our God-given freedoms and to defend and implement the Biblical principles on which our country was founded.”

Shortly after Black divulged his decision not to attend the conference, officials at Coral Ridge announced that Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, would address the gathering, taking the place of Kennedy, who is recuperating from a heart attack he suffered in late December.

“Dr. Land is a powerful and outspoken voice in America on behalf of biblical standards in public life,” Gary Cass, executive director of the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, said in a press release. “We very much look forward to hearing from him when he speaks at our gathering.”