By Ron Boston
Government officials can and do sponsor and promote various public events. Job fairs, educational seminars and town hall meetings are just a few examples. When these events occur, government officials often go out of their way to make sure people know about them and urge them to attend.
Can they do the same with a prayer breakfast?
Americans United says no. In Kentucky, AU has asked Gov. Steve Beshear to see to it that state officials drop their sponsorship of a March 6 prayer breakfast.
Americans United has received several complaints about the event. Yesterday, AU Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser and Madison Fellow Brooke R. Hardy sent a letter to Beshear and Attorney General Jack Conway, asking them to end any appearance of state endorsement of what it is clearly a religious event.
Luchenitser and Hardy noted in the letter that the breakfast is referred to as the “Governor’s Prayer Breakfast” and that it is being heavily promoted on the state’s official website. On the site, Beshear notes that he selected the theme for the event, which is described as a time for Kentuckians to “come together in prayerful humility and reflection to ask God’s wisdom in guiding the future of [the] Commonwealth.”
Here’s the problem with that: Not all Kentucky residents may want to pray at the governor’s urging. Some don’t want to pray at all. It’s none of the state’s business whether they do or don’t. When state officials heavily promote an event like this, the clear message is that they think you ought to be religious and pray. Promoting faith isn’t in their job description.
Whenever Americans United protests events like this, we encounter the same arguments. None are particularly persuasive, but here they are:
The prayer breakfast is privately sponsored. Really? You could have fooled me. It’s all over the Kentucky government’s website, and it sure looks like the state has a heavy hand in it. As Luchenitser and Hardy noted in their letter, “The name of the event includes the Governor’s official title. The event is advertised on the Commonwealth’s official website, directly below a banner that includes the Commonwealth’s official seal, the Governor’s title, and the text ‘Kentucky.gov.’ Those who wish to attend the Breakfast, whether as individuals or legislators, can reserve a spot using a form linked to the same website. That form, which can be submitted electronically directly from the website, itself bears the official seal of the Commonwealth.”
The event is non-sectarian and/or ecumenical. So what? Government should not promote “non-sectarian” religion any more than it should promote a specific faith. Ecumenism is also no defense. When government promotes 10 religions instead of one, it’s only compounding the problem. The government’s stance on religion should be strict neutrality. Prodding people to attend a prayer event is not neutrality.
We’ve been doing it for years. That’s irrelevant. Church-state violations don’t get grandfathered in because they’ve been going on for a long time. Beshear points out that the prayer breakfast started in 1965. All that means is that the state has been violating the law for 47 years. It’s time to stop.
No one is saying Beshear can’t attend a privately sponsored prayer breakfast. AU’s letter makes that clear. What we want is also clear: “[W]e ask the Governor’s office to cancel the Prayer Breakfast. Alternatively, if feasible at this late date, it may be possible to cure the constitutional violation if the Prayer Breakfast is converted into a privately sponsored event and the Governor’s office fully disassociates itself from the event. Among other actions, the Commonwealth and the Governor’s office must cease their official endorsement, promotion, and advertisement of the Breakfast – on the Commonwealth’s website and elsewhere. The Commonwealth and the Governor’s office must refrain from funding, planning, or organizing the Breakfast, and any state funds already spent for this year’s Breakfast must be reimbursed by private parties.”
Kentucky officials have a right to their bacon and eggs. They should leave the state-supported side of prayer off the taxpayer’s tab.