Nearly 80 people showed up at the Hillcrest Baptist Church yesterday morning to attend the Augusta, GA Mayor's Prayer Breakfast. A number of them were political candidates hoping to win in Georgia's July 31 primary. Others were community members who stepped up to the podium to pray and demonstrate their support for their mayor's monthly prayer breakfast.
The Madison, WI based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is challenging the breakfast. In June, FFRF wrote to Mayor Deke Copenhaver about his city-sanctioned prayer breakfasts. In response, Copenhaver told a local news channel, "We are not violating any laws so we will continue to move forward. Being mayor is what I do. My faith is who I am, and I feel very strong about that." In July, FFRF sent a second letter of complaint to city general counsel Andrew Mackenzie.
An open records request revealed that Karyn Nixon, executive assistant to the mayor, is primarily responsible for coordinating the event, which includes selecting the churches and sending out all the invitations. Nixon also puts together an agenda for the event, instructing pastors that scriptural references be included. The agenda specifically includes scripture readings, an opening prayer and remarks by the hosting pastor.
"Ms. Nixon utilizes her city-issued email account to organize the prayer breakfast. These emails reveal that Ms. Nixon works on the prayer breakfast during normal business hours. City phone lines are also used for participants to RSVP and to field requests for further information on the event," wrote FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert in a July 17 letter.
FFRF says that aside from one breakfast in 2009 which was held at a Jewish synagogue, all other events have been scheduled exclusively at Christian churches or organizations and almost always include a Christian prayer.
Markert's thorough four-page letter lays out the law, demonstrating why the city organization of the monthly devotionals violates the First Amendment.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor called the city's participation in the prayer breakfasts "grossly illegal and inappropriate." She added that the continued practice "certainly has the effect of government endorsement of religion."
Gaylor pointed out that the "patently religious" event alienates nonbelievers in Augusta by turning them into political outsiders.
Rick Allen, who is running for the 12th Congressional seat, supports the mayor's prayer breakfast and attended Tuesday morning's event. "It's the most wonderful thing that I'm involved in," he told News Channel 12, adding that "the Wisconsin controversy woke people up because they know the power of prayer."
Sheriff candidate Robbie Silas also attended. "I've been to the House of the Lord. It's going to be a great day," he said.
Jimmy Smith, a community member who decided to attend the breakfast, told reporters, "We just had a great turnout this morning and God's really blessing the efforts of our mayor in what he's trying to do."
The city attorney says that there should be some changes, such as the city no longer promoting or organizing the event. However, he has said nothing about shutting the prayer breakfast down.
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