Not long ago newly elected Bunnell City Commissioner John Rogers asked Armando Martinez, the city manager, whether the city had any plans to celebrate the National Day of Prayer. None, Martinez told Rogers, who then suggested that the city should mark the occasion.
So it will, in an event that appears to cross the line from observance to endorsement: the city’s own officials are directly involved in staging and leading the event.
At 1 p.m. today, in front of the old Bunnell City Hall on Church Street, city officials and ministers will gather, City Commissioner Daisy Henry, a pastor, will lead the invocation, Richard Summerlin, of New Way Christian Fellowship, will be the keynote speaker, the Calvary Christian Center Worship Band, led by Anthony Shepherd, will provide the music, Pastor Sims Jones, of the city’s Alliance of Involved Ministries–which Henry created with Jones– will be the emcee, and commissioners and the mayor will be given a chance to speak.
- Palm Coast Group Nails Historic Marker on Church-State Wall
- Read Judge Crabb’s Opinion Declaring the Day of Prayer Unconstitutional
- Barack Obama’s Day of Prayer Proclamation
- Harry Truman’s 1952 Proclamation
- Americans United for Separation of Church and State
- National Day of Prayer Task Force
- Jefferson’s Separation of Church and State Letter (1802)
- George W. Bush’s Jesus Day Proclamation
- Obama’s 2011 National Day of Prayer Proclamation
Martinez and the city’s special projects director, Judi Stetson, say the city is not sponsoring the event, but merely organizing it with the alliance. “We are participating and we are sort of preparing it,” Martinez said, with “all faiths” invited. “It’s a National day and we’re in support of a national day of prayer.” But it’s the city administration that coordinated it, and what invitations did go out on an email blast were prepared by the city and sent out through the city administration’s email system. Those involved at this afternoon’s event all have a distinctly Christian, as opposed to ecumenical or non-denominational, profile.
Sid Nowell, the Bunnell city attorney, was not aware of the event. “I had no idea they were celebrating the national day of prayer,” he said this morning. “They didn’t run that by me.”
“It certainly appears to be a government-sponsored or government-fostered religious activity, a government-endorsed religious activity, and thus is bothersome,” says Merrill Shapiro, President of the National Board of Trustees of the Washington, D.C.- based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the president of the Flagler Area Ministerial Association. Shapiro, who is Jewish, did not receive an invitation from Bunnell.
Shapiro has his own plans for the National Day of Prayer: a Day of Inclusivity. That event is scheduled for 6:30 this evening at Palm Coast’s Heroes Park. It is the second annual Day of Inclusivity, led by the Flagler County Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “In the material I sent off” about the event, Shapiro said, “we chafe at the idea of the government telling us when we should pray.”
In public schools, including in Flagler County, students have gathered around the flagpole to pray, but faculty and administration neither organize nor lead the prayers, when they do take place–or aren’t legally supposed to do so, though in some cases coaches have been known to lead their students in prayer.
Non-Christians often bristle at the idea that the United States is a Christian Country and that the government would “establish” Christianity and the Church as governmentally sanctioned religion in violation of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights that insists that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Through the efforts of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, in 1952, a joint resolution by Congress, signed by President Truman, declared an annual, national day of prayer. In 1988, the law was amended and signed by President Reagan, permanently setting the day as the first Thursday of every May. Each year, the president signs a proclamation, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day. Last year, all 50 state governors plus the governors of several U.S. territories signed similar proclamations.
Florida takes an even more rigorous stand through Article 3 of the state’s constitution that opens with the statement “there shall be no law respecting the establishment of religion” anywhere in the Sunshine State.
Rogers, the Bunnell commissioner–who at one point likened the National Day of Prayer to any other nationally recognized occasion, such as Earth Day–and the city administration, are straining to place their event under the umbrella of Obama’s recent proclamation, which the city quotes in its flyer.
“From a separation of church and state point of view,” Shapiro said, “we are not happy with Barack Obama or any president who have done this, and presidents have been doing this since before President Eisenhower.”
“We’re going to pray for our leaders of the nation, I’m, sure we’re going to pray for our president, his family, the leaders of our community,” Rogers said. “If a Buddhist wants to pray or a Muslim wants to pray or a Jehova’s witness wants to pray—it’s a national day of prayer.”
The difference in Bunnell, however, is that the city’s stamp, using the National Day of Prayer for cover, is on the event.
The Reverend Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State notes that “Americans have the right to pray for whomever they want and in what manner they like. But we don’t need an officially designated government proclamation to do that. Our people are free to engage in worship whenever they want. Allowing government to set aside certain days for prayer and worship implies that the state has some say over our religious lives when it does not. It is simply not the business of government to advise when, if and how people pray.
“The U.S. Constitution mandates separation of church and state. This means it is the job of religious leaders, not government officials, to call people to pray. Americans are free to heed or ignore such prayer requests as they see fit. The NDP is problematic because it presumes that Americans should take direction on their religious lives from the government. It suggests that they will engage in certain religious activities because the government recommends they do. People do not need government directives to pray or take part in any other form of worship.”
The National Day of Prayer has been litigated. A federal district court last year ruled it unconstitutional, following a lawsuit filed in 2008 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. But the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago three weeks ago threw out the ruling–not on its merits, but by concluding that the foundation had no standing to sue. In other words, the constitutional issue was not decided. The court used a procedural issue to sidestep the merits of the case. “All they have is a disagreement with the president’s action. But unless all limits on standing are to be abandoned, a feeling of alienation cannot suffice as injury,” Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote.
Various presidents have marked the National Day of Prayer differently. George W. Bush marked the occasion by inviting ministers of various faiths to the White House. Obama has only issued the proclamation, as required by law, without going further.
Featured speakers at this evening’s Day of Inclusivity event will include the vice-president of the local American Civil Liberties Union Chapter, Reinhold Schlieper, Sensei Morris Sekiyo Sullivan of the Volusia Buddhist Fellowship, Larry Glinzman, President of the Stonewall Democrats of Volusia & Flagler, Stan Bucholtz, President of the Association of Freethinkers of Palm Coast and Shapiro. Like the Bunnell gathering, the Day of Inclusivity is open to the public at no charge.