First Amendment Advocate, Vol. 3, No. 2, August 2002
The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United
Twisting both prayer and ethics
By Jim Huff
Mixing religion with politics twists both “religious” exercises and the “political” process. A recent prayer breakfast in conjunction with the 2002 National Day of Prayer is a classic example of such twisted mixing.
In April, a “Monthly Newsletter From Your City Government” was mailed to all of the residents of the city of Mustang, Oklahoma with their monthly water bill. On the front page it announced: “Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast Set; Steve Largent Will Be Speaker.”
The announcement informed readers that the guest speaker, Mr. Largent, “has announced his intention to run for governor of Oklahoma.” Largent was described “as an exceptional person who has provided ‘a clear Christian voice in the Congress.’” The prayer breakfast was held at a local Baptist Church.
Along with other notices related to civic issues, this printed material included information about Largent’s professional football career and reminded the readers that the announced gubernatorial candidate had also represented Oklahomans in the U. S. House of Representatives.
It takes a lot of twisting to promote an act of worship, using city funds and labor with a candidate for political office as the main speaker. Oklahoma’s rules governing the ethics of elections indicate that both civic leaders and candidates for office should know that public resources cannot be used this way.
“Constitutional and Statutory Provisions and Constitutional Ethics Rules Governing . . . Campaigns for State Office or State Issues” (Section 257:10-1-3-b) printed by the Oklahoma State Ethics Commission states: “A person shall not use or authorize the use of public funds, property, or time to produce, print, publish, broadcast, or otherwise disseminate material designed or timed to influence the results of an election for state office.”
In a radio interview with Dr. Bruce Prescott, host of the “Religious Talk” radio program, Mustang Mayor Ross Duckett shirked responsibility for promoting his prayer breakfast and candidates for public office at city expense. He claimed it was done without his knowledge and he refused to give any assurances that he would advise city employees to refrain from such inappropriate promotions in the future.
Later, in his weekly newspaper column for the Mustang News, Duckett wrote an article entitled, “Intolerance fuels prayer breakfast foes.” In the column he described the intolerance in Nigeria (where two men were sentenced to death for becoming Christians), and intolerance in Afghanistan (where two Christian missionaries were arrested and held hostage for sharing their faith), and then launched into an implied parallel in which he was the victim.
Duckett wrote that he “was surprised and shocked” to learn that people thought he was violating the constitution by hosting a prayer breakfast. He then recounted a complaint about his prayer breakfast the previous year and lamented that he could not get a Mustang citizen to understand that, “no one was compelled to attend and that all of us are free to worship in a manner dictated by our faith.”
For the record, Americans United has yet to be contacted by any Mustang citizen complaining about being forced to attend the mayor’s prayer service. Residents are loudly complaining about being forced to pay (with their tax dollars) to promote the mayor’s worship service and his political endorsements.
A letter from the national office of Americans United informed the mayor and the city attorney of Mustang that, “It is unconstitutional for a city to endorse a prayer breakfast and to use government funds and resources to promote that event.” The letter was signed by the national Legal Director and the President of the Oklahoma Chapter.
It is completely inappropriate for friends and supporters of candidates for political office to mix the religious act of prayer with any kind of political electioneering. No matter how pious and sincere, promoting both a prayer meeting and an announced candidate for state wide elective office with public resources is an improper mixing of church and state. It gives the wrong twist to both an act of worship and the processes of good citizenship.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
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