December 2016 Church & State - December 2016

Despite AU Protests, Ark. Town Sponsors Evangelistic Prayer Event

  AU admin

An Arkansas town went ahead with a planned “40 Days of Prayer” event in October despite a warning from Americans United.

It was the second year that officials in El Dorado, a city of about 18,500 residents, sponsored the problematic religious campaign. According to the El Dorado News-Times, in 2015 planning meetings for the event were held at city hall, and daily prayer topics were posted to the city and police department Facebook pages.

During the 2015 event, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation asked the town to remove prayer event content from its web pages. Ultimately the unconstitutional content was removed from the sites, but the 40 Days proceeded as planned.

To prepare for the 2016 event, a group including Mayor Frank Hash and El Dorado Aldermen Judy Ward and Billy Bann met in Little Rock in January with Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) and attorneys from the Arkansas Municipal League. El Dorado officials made some changes ahead of this year’s event, but Americans United felt they were insufficient.    

“The city appears to believe that it can render 2016’s planned Forty Days of Prayer event constitutional by removing overt references to Christianity in the city’s postings and proclamations regarding the event, and by allowing atheists, agnostics, and other non-theists to post comments on the city’s online religious posts,” AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith wrote in August. “These modifications cannot render the event constitutional because it will still involve unambiguous city sponsorship and endorsement of religious activity. We request that you refrain from proceeding with the event.”

In his response, Hash claimed that the 40 Days event is “being organized and promoted strictly by concerned citizens and local pastors of our community.”

Smith didn’t buy it. The 2015 event “flagrantly” violated the Constitution, he wrote.

In a final letter to the town, sent in late September, Smith warned officials of the stakes.

“Media reports have made clear that El Dorado is intent on holding another ‘40 Days of Prayer’ event this year, with at least one city alderman deeply involved in the planning of the event,” Smith wrote. “Should you insist on proceeding as you did last year, you invite an expensive lawsuit that you cannot win.”

Ultimately, Hash decided that he would simply ignore Americans United.

The News-Times asked Hash if he had replied to Americans United. He replied, “No, ma’am, I didn’t. I’m not going to respond to those people.”

Americans United is considering its next steps.

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