KINGSPORT — A Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization that promotes the separation of church and state is demanding the city of Kingsport cease all involvement in the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast, calling its participation in the annual event a serious constitutional concern.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., sent a letter to Mayor Dennis Phillips on May 1 urging him to immediately stop using city resources and taxpayer funds to plan, organize and promote the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast. The prayer breakfast took place the next day on May 2.
The FFRF is a national nonprofit organization with more than 19,000 members, who strive to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.
The Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast has been held in Kingsport for more than a decade with Phillips attending since being elected in 2005. This year’s event was held at the Kingsport Civic Auditorium 2 in conjunction with the 62nd annual observance of the National Day of Prayer.
The FFRF letter points out that tickets for the event were sold at city hall, the parks and recreation office and the chamber of commerce, that Kingsport sent out a press release on the event and Morris Baker — the director of grants and higher education initiatives for the city — was the contact person for the event.
“It is grossly illegal and inappropriate for the city to be hosting, organizing, supporting or otherwise promoting a patently religious event, such as a prayer breakfast,” the letter states. “This practice has the effect of government endorsement of religion. It alienates nonbelievers in Kingsport by turning them into political outsiders in their own community.”
The Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast — a free event open to the public — included prayers for the city, state and nation, the local business community, elected officials and the education community. Between prayers, the Milligan College Concert Choir sang hymns and city employees and community leaders engaged in Scripture readings.
“Any reasonable city resident would interpret the city’s actions in this case as government endorsement of religion,” the letter states.
The FFRF argues Kingsport must refrain from expending any further taxpayer dollars, using publicly funded employees and drawing on any publicly funded resources to promote the religious prayer breakfast. Furthermore, the organization is asking for the mayor’s office to disassociate itself from the event, that the city not sell tickets or promote the event and for Baker to not be the contact person for the event.
Phillips said all of the funding for the event, including the auditorium rental and the caterer (Pratt’s) came from donations, sponsorships and ticket sales. According to city records, the Kingsport Chamber Foundation rented the Civic Auditorium that day for $340. Christ Fellowship Church funded the tickets for any city employee who chose to come to the event, according to city emails.
“No one is forced to come to the prayer breakfast or listen to the prayer breakfast or believe the same things. Our prayer breakfast is a group of individuals who are assembled to pay homage to our ministers,” Phillips said. “My plans are we are going to continue doing it.”
Baker, who did help organize and coordinate the event, said he took the day off from work on the day of the prayer breakfast.
“I was honored to be the volunteer coordinator for the Kingsport Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast,” Baker said. “It is a pleasure to work with area churches and businesses to bring the community together for prayer.”
Kingsport attorney Frank Johnstone sent a letter to the FFRF on May 8 on behalf of the city, saying an appropriate investigation and action would be taken and that Kingsport would take steps to confirm the prayer breakfast does not receive improper support from the city.
“I think that there is certainly a separation between church and state and that should be respected, but I also think that on the National Day of Prayer, to allow Christians to honor their god, is the right thing to do.”
The National Day of Prayer began in 1952 and is a day designated by the United States Congress when people are asked “to turn to God in prayer and meditation.” The FFRF has challenged the statute establishing the National Day of Prayer, but the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2011 dismissed the claim, finding the organization lacked standing and that only the president was injured enough to challenge the statute.