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Church-State Separation Be Damned: Bunnell Sponsors 3rd Prayer Day, Invoking “God’s City”

| May 2, 2013

Three of the five members of the Bunnell City Commission, including Mayor Catherine Robinson and Commissioners Jenny Crain-Brady and John Rogers (to the right) participated in Bunnell's 'Day of Prayer,' which the city sponsored. The event began at Rogers's urging in 2011. Attendance was scant today. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

Three of the five members of the Bunnell City Commission, including Mayor Catherine Robinson and Commissioners Jenny Crain-Brady and John Rogers (to the right) participated in Bunnell’s ‘Day of Prayer,’ which the city sponsored. The event began at Rogers’s urging in 2011. Attendance was scant today. Click on the image for larger view. (© FlaglerLive)

It’s not every day that the Bunnell City Government openly and proudly breaks the spirit of a law, if not its letter. It usually happens only once every two weeks, when one of its city council members leads the rest, and the assembly before the council, in an explicitly Christian prayer, under the city’s banner, to open Bunnell City Commission meetings.

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But once a year for the past three years, the city has sponsored a “Day of Prayer,” inviting numerous religious representatives, politicians from every local government and members of the public to participate in a Christian revival-like gathering, under the city’s big tent—its former City Hall—and the city’s aegis, with city commissioners arrayed up front alongside clergy from the Alliance for Involved Ministers that former Commissioner Daisy Henry created, and with those commissioners and the mayor themselves leading the assembly in prayer.

They stood, they clapped, they swayed, they chanted to the rhythms of the Calvary Christian Center Praise Band. Commissioner John Rogers, who is at the origin of the Bunnell Day of Prayer, called Bunnell “God’s city.” Mayor Catherine Robinson quoted from Chronicles (“if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face…”). Several pastors spoke. The name of Jesus was liberally and insistently invoked. And at one point, to the delight of the flock, the electricity flickered.

If the intent was to be non-denominational, the result was anything but, with frequent references to the supremacy of god or Jesus to the law. “As Christians when we pray we are told to pray in the name of Jesus,” Curtis Gray, a pastor at Kingdom Purpose Christian Center, said to applause. “Now I want to close by saying that that name is above every name.”

City Manager Armando Martinez describes the event as “in compliance with the requirement of the President of the United States, making it a National Day of Prayer. The city is endorsing that idea of bringing people together.” In fact the Day of Prayer was the Cold War creation of James Percy Priest, a Democratic congressman from Tennessee, and Absalom Roberston, a Democratic senator from Virginia, who in 1952, and at Rev. Billy Graham’s urging, introduced companion bills to create an annual day of prayer as a contrast to Soviet atheism, and require every president every year to issue a prayer-day proclamation.

A federal judge declared the Day of Prayer unconstitutional in 2010 but was overruled by an appeals court that sidestepped the legality of the day, and instead focused on the complainant—the Freedom From Religion Foundation—saying it had no standing to sue.

“The U.S. president and elected officials have neither the moral nor the constitutional authority to exhort citizens to pray and to gather with others ‘to turn to God in prayer,’ ” the foundation said today in a statement alongside a full-page ad it ran in the Washington Post, opposing government’s role in the day of prayer.

But while the presidents’ proclamations recognize and celebrate religious diversity and participation, they do not call on governments to sponsor such celebrations. “Today and every day, prayers will be offered in houses of worship, at community gatherings, in our homes, and in neighborhoods all across our country,” Barack Obama’s 2013 proclamation states, expressly leaving silent government’s role beyond recognizing the day. Bunnell does not recognize the distinction.

Martinez, after the first city-sponsored day of prayer in 2011, wanted to go further and call it “god’s city day in Bunnell,” but was dissuaded from doing so by the city attorney. His brief speech Monday was among the more secular, however.

“I was born in a country where you couldn’t do anything like this, where you didn’t have these freedoms,” Martinez said in one of the more moving moments of the afternoon, as he referred to his native Cuba, where atheism is the official state religion. He paid tribute to the military for defending such freedoms. Unlike commissioners, he sat in back of the mostly empty hall.

The event was richly attended last year because it fell ahead of a major primary and general election: every local candidate with a prayer’s chance of a win turned out. There is no election this year. The hall was mostly empty: Commissioners and clergy aside, 25 people were in attendance, at least half of whom city staffers, including every department head and the police chief.

Representatives from every local government, including Palm Coast, Flagler Beach, the school board and the county, were invited. None showed up. The one exception was Flagler County Sheriff Jim Manfre, who walked in 50 minutes into the proceedings and immediately went to the dais to offer the most secular address of the afternoon—a recognition of fallen cops and a reminder of next week’s commemoration of National Police Week as well as the Sheriff’s Office’s own annual ceremony remembering its fallen deputies. Manfre, an attorney, had no issue with Bunnell’s sponsorship of the day.

Mere prayer at government meetings has repeatedly been ruled constitutional by courts—as long as the prayer falls within certain parameters. The prevailing U.S. Supreme Court decision on the matter dates back to a 1983 ruling (decided by a 6-3 vote) that declared constitutional state legislature’s hiring of a chaplain to open sessions with a prayer, as long as the prayer was non-denominational or not distinctly Christian. Generic mention of god is not objectionable—the Supreme Court itself begins its sessions with the formulaic words, “God save the United States and this Honorable Court”—but specific references to denominationally recognizable theology is not. The minister at the center of the Supreme Court case used to offer explicitly Christian prayers, but dropped all references to Christ after a Jewish legislator complained. That satisfied the court as it reduced the prayer to a tradition that’s “become part of the fabric of our society.”

“To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an ‘establishment’ of religion or a step toward establishment,” then-Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for the majority. “It is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”

Justice William Brennan, in his dissent, wrote: “Prayer is serious business – serious theological business – and it is not a mere ‘acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country’ for the State to immerse itself in that business.” The majority ruled in that decision.

Just five weeks ago a federal court decision—with jurisdiction over Flagler County—concluded that the Lakeland City Commission’s custom of opening its bi-monthly meetings with a prayer was not unconstitutional, but the court did so after the city amended its custom to ensure that the prayer did not take place as part of the official meeting (Bunnell’s prayer is noted on its meeting agendas), that it was proffered by someone outside the government (Bunnell city commissioners or the mayor deliver the prayer), and that the process of securing those who would offer a prayer was broad and all-inclusive. Other courts have ruled that such prayers must not specifically be denominational, with overt references, for example, to Jesus Christ.

In every regard, Bunnell’s approach insistently took on an evangelical approach. Monday’s “Day of Prayer” was built around the talent—musical and ministerial—of Ormond Beach’s Calvary Christian Center, with which Commissioner John Rogers has a close association, and whose pastor, Jim Raley, was part of Monday’s event. There were no non-Christians.

That’s not necessarily the city’s fault: Bunnell has 38 churches and no known worship centers of non-Christian denominations of any note. But the city, according to Judi Stetson, its special projects director and the organizer of today’s event, broadened its invitations to include all of Flagler County, down to Daytona Beach, a geography that encompasses innumerable denominations, religions and non-religions. The response was scant, in clergy or attendance. Rain, an act of god the city could not control, did not help.

29 Responses for “Church-State Separation Be Damned: Bunnell Sponsors 3rd Prayer Day, Invoking “God’s City””

  1. Charles Gardner says:


  2. downinthelab says:

    Aww come on now, that’s ’bout the only prayer that poor little town has got…

    • James says:

      Once again there is complete misunderstanding about separation of church and state. First there is no law, it states that the state (ie:government) shall not impose itself upon any religion, stop freedom of religion period. This was spoken by Thomas Jefferson. Here is what the first admendment states:
      The First Amendment :
      Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
      So where did the words “Separation of Church and State.” come from? They can be traced back to a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote back in 1802. In October 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut wrote to President Jefferson, and in their letter they voiced some concerns about Religious Freedom. On January 1, 1802 Jefferson wrote a letter to them in which he added the phrase “Separation of Church and State.” When you read the full letter, you will understand that Jefferson was simply underscoring the First Amendment as a guardian of the peoples religious freedom from government interference. Here is an excerpt from Jefferson’s letter. . .
      “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.” Read the full text of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association ..
      I hope this sheds a little light on the subject.

      • NativeFloridian says:

        I love how the only definition people can find for “Separation of Church and State” is Jefferson’s quote, which is hundreds of years old now… The Supreme Court has also made reference to the “Separation of Church and State” several times in the last few decades, and they’ve upheld that the legal definition means that, among other things, government officials cannot spend tax dollars to throw a Christian celebration, nor can they tell people to pray like they do at their city meetings. Bottom line: the City of Bunnell shouldn’t be engaging in such religious activities and the community has every right to sue the City of Bunnell for wasting their tax dollars. Bunnell better be glad I don’t call it home – if this was going on in Flagler Beach you’d better believe I’d squash it. There is a time and place for prayer, and it isn’t in official government events. Even religious leaders would agree that it’s the job of the leaders of religions to preach religion, not the government’s. Separation of Church and State stands for exactly what it sounds like, not just for some letter Jefferson wrote centuries ago.

      • Anonymous says:

        It will not shed any light as those who use the term “Separation of Church and State.” as they have no clue on its meaning

  3. Andy_Nonymous says:

    Well if you’re going to throw separation of church and State out of the window, might as well throw Matthew 6:5 right along with it, huh?

    “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”

    I don’t know which I find more ironic, blatantly ignoring scripture or pretending to be inclusive to other faiths.

    Hypocrites indeed!

  4. Magnolia says:

    Gee, the world didn’t end, did it? And nobody forced you to convert.

  5. A.S.F. says:

    For a town that likes to call itself “God’s City”, Bunnell seems to have a lot of problems with drug-dealing and other assorted crimes. Perhaps the mayor should stop spending so much time and energy praying in public and address what’s really happening in her city in a more practical way.

  6. Pastor Sims Jones says:

    As one who was past of the 1st and 2nd Day of prayer, I think it is something very much needed. With all of the things going on in the world, God has never been needed more than now. People are dying in grate numbers, there are wars and unrest all over the world, Our country is fighting with it’s self. Our leadership needs guidance, When we have City leaders willing to Put God first which the bible said, We are blessed. More Cities, Counties, States, and our Country should follow what me are doing for the betterment of all.
    Our grateness has been showed time and time again, when we come together in times of need. Prayer changes thing, and you can’t get by that. God Bless.

  7. rickg says:

    So show me how this prayer day thing works…. Where’s the profit? Where’s the benefit? All of you anti government people out there should protest this praying thing. Government should not be involved in any type of religious activities… A day of prayer hasn’t helped those still suffering due to lack of health care or lack of a job… Praying, much like wishing your life away is pragmatically a waste of time.

  8. Stevie says:

    I guess Manfre didn’t arrest anyone because it was legal for Christians who were elected to pray a Christian prayer? Was anyone forced to stay, forced to pray, forced to do anything at all. Yet you would support force Christians not to freely exercise their faith? Insane.

  9. Bunnell Resident says:

    Iwould have attended if I knew about it. But then again if they spent taxpayer dollars advertising it maybe they would have then been wrong. We have such bigger fish to fry than worrying about whether Bunnell considers itself God’s City. If Bunnell was passing. Laws concerning religion than perhaps that would also be going too far. Prayer is much more like stating a personal opinion which is also protected under the 1st Amendment. I seriously doubt anyone would cobsider this action outside of any community standard nor would anyone think their actions had a “chilling effect” on believers from any other faith. After all, does not the federal government make Christmas a federal holiday? The very name Christmas at its root begins with Christ. I am much more concerned as to how the city of Bunnell plans to deliver safe drinking water at an economicla cost to all its residents. Thanks all, God Bless and “praise Jesus” for our City Council.

  10. Andy Nonymous says:

    True, no one here was forced to participate, Stevie, however you obviously do not understand what separation between church and State means. In fact, no one here even remotely suggested that ANY person be prohibited from freely exercising their faith publicly. This is incident is NOT a matter of FORCE, but a matter of ENDORSEMENT, whether by Federal or by local Government. There is a difference!

    And please do not play the persecution card. I know all too well that had this involved a different faith, there are certain fundamentalist Christians who would be on the front lines crying foul, too.

  11. James says:

    Flagler live thank you for the link to Jefferson, good job!

  12. JonQPublik says:

    The only legitimate places for religious celebrations or acts of any kind is within a place of worship or the privacy of one’s home. Oh, funerals and cemeteries, too– that seems right to me. Strangely enough, I’ve always thought reverence for the dead and the bereaved is a good thing.

    However, I do think “moments of silence” for persons of ANY faith– including those who do not belong to one– to reflect, is appropriate. Outright use of “prayer” seems completely unethical. Don’t force your God upon someone else. It’s like spitting in their tea.

  13. Angie says:

    It would be ok with the people commenting on this that if the City were to endorse a gay pride rally or a woman’s right to kill her child then it would be ok, but to endorse the Bible, God, Jesus then there’s a problem. Well the problem lies within you! If you we’re sick and dying or your child or mother was sick you’d be praying or asking for prayer. Hypocrit! I think the Cities need to do more than what they do now, it’s time to get back to how this world was created, by God, and for God! In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
    @James, you spoke truth, there is NO separation of church and state! If you don’t want to come then don’t, we will pray for you all and pray you will come to know Jesus before the end of your days, cause you’ll be praying you would have when your in His face and He says “depart from me you evil doer, I never knew you!
    @rickg the profit is a soul! What does it profit a man to gain the world, yet lose his own soul. Praying will get you a job, heal you, set you free and so much more!
    I’m glad Rogers suggested it, I’m glad the City prays, (well at least some of us) I wish they would do it more often!

  14. Anonymous says:

    “This is incident is NOT a matter of FORCE, but a matter of ENDORSEMENT, whether by Federal or by local Government. There is a difference!”

    Did the King declare himself the head of the church? What does the endorsement mandate? No and nothing.

    This is no different than any other function of government that recognizes a group of people and allows them to speak in the public arena.

    We don’t stop being Christian when we walk into the public arena. We don’t stop honoring our Lord just because you say so.

  15. Rev. Beth Gardner says:

    In my humble opinion (IMHO) – it is wrong that the City of Bunnell sponsors and organizes this event. I am all about prayer – even a National Day of prayer. But I believe it should be organized and led by the people (laity and clergy) not the City/County elected officials or their employees. They are the ones we should be praying FOR when we gather. I think it is this sort of crossing “walls of separation” that led to the City Clerk publicly decrying “Christian” as the reason he leaves his post instead of relying on the City’s and state/federal rules as to when and why an employee can be fired. I chose not to participate in this event for this reason.

    I also believe that these types of events hold the best hope for building community when they are inter-faith. Inter-denominational, to me, means multiple Christian denominations, not multiple faiths, participating. As was reported in the article, there are no worship centers for other faiths in Bunnell, but there are persons of other faiths that live and/or work in Bunnell.

    Imagine the city officials at the above event being surrounded and prayed for by those in attendance – persons of several faiths asking the “God of their understanding” to bless them….imagine people of several faiths gathered together and seeing each other face-to-face… Now THAT would be a day of prayer, and that would be POWERFUL! And, IMHO, it could potentially change our world, starting right here.

  16. Andy Nonymous says:

    No, Anonymous, this is a primary example of utilizing Government as a means of religious endorsement and promotion. Plain and simple. Don’t even try to play coy here. I KNOW very well, as do YOU, that National Day of Prayer was and is a Christian day.

    If you want to pray publicly, then by all means do so. If you want to share and promote your faith on your own time, you’re guaranteed the right. Just don’t use Government time and / or money to promote a special religious day of prayer. It’s not there to endorse nor prohibit the free exercise thereof (Paraphrasing First Amendment).

    What is so complex about this that you do not simply understand?

    As for you, Angie, the problem lies with YOU, not me, nor anyone else here who recognizes this as Government endorsement / promotion of a specific religion. Your fire-and-brimstone threats of eternal damnation are absolute rubbish and a primary example of why Church and State deserve separation.

  17. Stevie says:

    “This is incident is NOT a matter of FORCE, but a matter of ENDORSEMENT”

    Oh you mean the City passed a resolution endorsing the Christian faith and no others? Oh, no Jews were allowed to pray?, Muslims? The article doesn’t provide any incite into any one group being expressly endorsed by the CITY Government officially.

    During audience to be heard anyone can get up in front of the commission and and speak to any item they want to as long as it is not on the agenda. They can pray for what ever they want.

    Just because someone proclaims Bunnell God’s city doesn’t mean that is the official position of the city government. Get real.

    The separation of church and state was intended to protect the church from government. It was not intended to allow government to forbid all religious forms of speaking over secular forms. A balance is mandated by the courts. Read your history and it’s context.

    • A.S.F. says:

      I don’t think the problem is with prayer itself but with the overbearing importance that religion appears to play in the public and political forums of a city beseiged by a number serious issues that beg to be addressed more concretely. Politicizing prayer seems to be a sideshow Bunnell is fond of, rather than coming up with intelligent solutions that might actually create a better future for the citizens of Bunnell. If the realities of today’s world makes you fearful, becoming louder in your expression of prayer isn’t going to solve those problems. Opening your eyes and puliing your head out of the clouds might be a first step towards a brighter future. Note to public servants: Please pray on your own time and in your own homes and places and worship. THAT is what separation of Church and state was meant to protect–nothing more and nothing less.

  18. O lawd says:

    Bunnell is god’s city… strike me dead right now and rid me of this pathetic place! Reincarnation is more preferable even if I have to return as a cockroach! Better yet, just let my soul wander throughout eternity! Tis a much better life !!!!!!!

  19. Merrill Shapiro says:

    I know that I am late to the dance here, as I am travelling outside Florida, but I’d like to share this open letter to Bunnell City Manager Armando Martinez:

    Dear City Manager Martinez,

    The very strength of America is embodied in your presence as an immigrant, as a Cuban-American who has risen to an important position in our county seat.

    With all due respect, though, the fundamental difference between your native Cuba and the United States of America is this:

    In Cuba the government is free and the people are restrained. In these United States of America, “We the People” are free and the government is restrained!

    Because the government of Cuba was free, it could halt gatherings to pray or engage in religious practices. Because the people of the United States are free, we can gather to pray and engage in religious practices.

    “We the People” have restrained our governments (the prohibition against mingling in religious affairs is repeated in our Florida State Constitution) from having anything to do with religion. We have agreed, by ratifying our Constitution that we are not interested in having a government that tells us when and how to pray and to whom to pray. This prohibition, this restraint on our government, is one of the reasons why it is so much more attractive to migrate from Cuba to the United States than it is to migrate from the United States to Cuba.

    Those of us who hold government restraint in high esteem hope you will join us in limiting our government to issues other than the realm of faith and religion. Let’s work together to protect the rights or our houses of worship and to protect the rights of our people to serve those higher powers in a manner that suits them and not in a manner that suits our government!


    (Rabbi) Merrill Shapiro

    • NortonSmitty says:

      ” In these United States of America, “We the People” are free and the government is restrained!”
      Rabbi, from your lips to Dick Cheney’s ear.

  20. NortonSmitty says:

    How ’bout we all just start praying to the Potato? Problem solved and no need for new signs.

  21. mikeylikesit says:

    All hail the mighty and glorious Potato! Come on out for the biggest single day worship of this awesome root vegetable on Saturday. Location? Where else, but Bunnell, of course!

    btw- its all about freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. There is a difference.

  22. PJ says:

    So some folks want to pray and a city offers an endorsement of a day to do so??

    Really? What, not enough negative drama to make you fell good??

    Just a re-cap of some of these wonderful negative comments:

    “Just start praying to the potato”

    “Bunnell is god’s city… strike me dead right now and rid me of this pathetic place! Reincarnation is more preferable even if I have to return as a cockroach!”

    “I don’t think the problem is with prayer itself but with the overbearing importance that religion appears to play in the public and political forums of a city beseiged by a number serious issues that beg to be addressed more concretely. Politicizing prayer seems to be a sideshow.”

    “And I don’t start honoring your lord just because you say so. ”

    “Aww come on now, that’s ’bout the only prayer that poor little town has got…”


    Ok now that we re-capped; all this is a bunch of people getting together in a public place because the City proclaimed a Day of Prayer. Something so simple and you all want the City to go up in flames(that’s seems to be prefered) rather than see the good by folks sharing some “FELLOWSHIP”…………

    The Rabbi said it the best and to all of you please read his comments again it may help you all to understand something simple like praying……PJ

    • A.S.F. says:

      P.J.–Please note: No one is stopping you or any member of the city council from praying to whatever deity you wish in any way you wish, as long as you do not use a public forum to do so. It makes a sideshow out of something which should be a private form of personal expression. Declaring Bunnell to be “God’s City” seems rather hysterical and overblown when viewed alongside the very real problems that occur there everyday and which require more attention from the Bunnell city government than they seem to have to spare, since they spend so much of it praying. What I suggest is that they use that time and energy (not to mention their soapbox) trying to come up with practical solutions to the very real problems that threaten the welfare of Bunnell’s citizens. I would assume that this is what those citizens elected them for…not to lead people in public prayer.

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