A Wisconson nontheist group wants Republican Gov. Matthew Bevin of Kentucky to cancel a prayer breakfast, arguing that it's exclusionary and violates separation of church and state laws.
The breakfast is scheduled for Feb. 16 at the Frankfort Convention Center, which is private property. A flier for the event includes Kentucky's official seal, and says the University of Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari will be the guest speaker.
"By sponsoring a Prayer Breakfast, which calls Kentucky citizens to prayer, you abrogate your duty to remain neutral," Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote in a letter to Bevin on Feb. 5. "This event sends a message that the governor of Kentucky prefers and endorses religion over nonreligion and more specifically the Christian faith."
According to the FFRF, Bevin is violating Kentucky guidelines, which suggest he should not advocate for religion in his official capacity as governor. Gaylor said Bevin is specifically breaking the law by using official state email to announce the event, hosting a flier on the official state website, and using Kentucky's seal on the flier.
Most prayer breakfasts at the local and state political levels are modeled after the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event held every February in Washington, D.C. The national version doubles as a meeting of bigwigs, including policy makers and business leaders.
The first prayer breakfast was held on Feb. 5, 1953, at Conrad Hilton’s Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., according to TIME magazine. Then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower got the idea from Abraham Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant and Methodist pastor, after complaining to his friend, Sen. Frank Carlson, that the White House was “the loneliest house I’ve ever been in."
Carlson, a friend of Vereide's, told Eisenhower about the small prayer groups Vereide had been holding since the 1930s, and the tradition was born with that first meeting, which included the president, as well as senators and congressmen. The next year, the event expanded to include judges, diplomats and businessmen.
Since then, every president -- including Barack Obama -- has participated in the National Prayer Breakfast, and smaller versions have popped up in towns and cities across the country.
In addition to canceling the event, the FFRF wants Bevin to remove any mention of the prayer breakfast from the official state website and issue an apology to state employees who the governor invited to participate. Bevin's office had not responded to the FFRF's letter as of Feb. 11.