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Freedom From Religion Foundation calls for retraction of Winter Garden’s Day of Prayer proclamation

Organization says proclamation violates First Amendment, sidelines non-Christian city residents.



The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has called on Winter Garden Mayor John Rees to rescind his proclamation for a city-wide Day of Prayer issued at the April 25 city commission meeting. In a letter, sent April 30, the foundation said the proclamation violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits governments from establishing or promoting religion. The proclamation was not on the meeting’s agenda.  


“As the city’s highest elected official, you are charged with great responsibility and have been given significant trust by citizens, including those citizens who may not share your personal religious viewpoint,” the letter read. “Leaving prayer as a private matter for private citizens is the wisest public policy.”

 

Rees announced Proclamation 24-06, which is based on the annual National Day of Prayer, by acknowledging it was not on the meeting agenda. He went on to say Winter Garden would hold an official Day of Prayer on May 2 when residents could come together, “reading sacred Scriptures and attending services to seek God …” 


FFRF acts as a watchdog to prevent religion from being inserted into public institutions, such as governments and public schools. It has fought against Days of Prayer across the country since 1976 and has had many such events retracted or changed to be more inclusive.


“I have sent thousands and thousands of letters to various schools, cities and everything,” said Christopher Line, the foundation’s staff attorney. “We’ve had, for sure, hundreds, probably thousands of victories.”


Mayor Rees
Mayor John Rees has a history of prioritizing his religious beliefs. In 2014, he ousted a resident from a commission meeting for not standing for the invocation and Pledge. Agendas now state that one does not have to stand.

In addition to requesting that the mayor retract this year's proclamation, the nonprofit organization requested that Rees not issue additional Days of Prayer proclamations in the future.


Rees, who did not condemn the neo-Nazis who threw antisemitic literature into Winter Garden driveways last summer, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.


According to a recent survey done by the Pew Research Center, Americans want their governments to adhere to the separation of church and state. Among the more than 12,000 adults surveyed, 55 percent favored government enforcing the separation; just 13 percent objected. In the same survey, 72 percent of those who said they had no religious affiliation said, “conservative Christians have gone too far in trying to control religion in government and public schools.” (About 63 percent of Christians said the same about secular liberals.) 


Line said the foundation sent the letter after a concerned citizen informed the organization that the proclamation was not on the meeting agenda and that at least one member of the commission was unaware that it would be brought forward.


Commissioner Colin Sharman, who represents District 4, told VoxPopuli after the April 25 meeting that he was “surprised” by the Day of Prayer proclamation.


City Manager Jon Williams blamed timing for the proclamation’s absence from the meeting agenda and told VoxPopuli via email that the mayor made the request on Wednesday for the following day’s meeting.


“Checked with Clerk on Thursday at around 12 p.m. or so to see if proclamation had been prepared, Presented Proclamation to Mayor before the meeting to see if he would like to add it to the agenda,” Williams said in the email. “Nothing further to add.”


A response to Communism

The National Day of Prayer was established in 1952 — during the Sen. Joseph McCarthy era —  by President Harry Truman at the behest of the late Rev. Billy Graham. 


Steve Green, director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, and author of Church and State, told VoxPopuli in a Thursday phone interview that the event may have been created in response to McCarthy’s fear-mongering about Communism permeating American society. 


“From 1952, I think it was in a sense reactionary against godless communism,” Green said. “It’s all part of the 1950s creating the motto, which was not in existence at that point, One Nation Under God, then putting it on the currency, putting the motto in the House of Representatives where it still is today.”

 

Each year the National Day of Prayer takes a Bible verse as its theme. This year’s was “Lift up the word, light up the world.” Winter Garden adopted that same theme.


Line said that while the National Day of Prayer is promoted under the guise that it respects all religions and welcomes everyone to pray, the event always takes its theme from the Christian Bible.


In issuing the proclamation, Rees read a verse from 2 Samuel:


For you are my lamp, O Lord, and my God lightens my darkness… This God — his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.


Maneuvers like that, said Line, sideline Winter Garden residents who hold other religious beliefs or who may not be religious at all.


According to the Pew Research Center, Christianity’s numbers have been falling since the 1990s while there’s been a steady rise in the number of Americans who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or say they have “no religion in particular” — what researchers call Nones. A 2022 study from Pew showed that 30 percent of Americans are Nones while 64 percent are Christian and another 6 percent are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist. If current trends continue, Pew projects that by 2070, Christians will account for just 35 to 45 percent of the population while Nones could make up 41 to 52 percent of the population. 


In a nod to how cosmopolitan Winter Garden has become over the years, Sharman told VoxPopuli in a Thursday phone interview, “I’d like to see more proclamations for other groups, so it’s representative of the citizens of Winter Garden.”



 

Sidebar: Did the National Day of Prayer embrace Christian nationalism?   


Christopher Line, staff attorney for Freedom From Religion Foundation, thinks this year, the 2024 prayer event may have done just that. 


Christian nationalism is a right-wing political ideology that many on the right and left perceive as troubling for the country. 


 Christianity Today defines Christian nationalism as the beliefs that “Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square,” that America “is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.”


Philip Gorski, author of The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, explained the ideology to Yale News this way:  


“It is an ideology based on a story about America that’s developed over three centuries. It reveres the myth that the country was founded as a Christian nation by white Christians and that its laws and institutions are based on Protestant Christianity. White Christian nationalists believe that the country is divinely favored and has been given the mission to spread religion, freedom, and civilization. They see this mission and the values they cherish as under threat from the growing presence of non-whites, non-Christians, and immigrants in the United States. This is one point at which white Christian nationalism overlaps with the Make America Great American narrative. It’s the view that somebody has corrupted the country or is trying to take it away. White Christian nationalists want to take it back.”


How does this connect with the 2024 National Day of Prayer? Line pointed to the National Day of Prayer site which states, Lead us forward to dispel the darkness and bring light throughout the church, family, education, business, military, government and arts, entertainment and media. He says that’s a clear echo of the Seven Mountain Mandate (also known as 7M) popularized in the 2013 book Invading Babylon, which calls “on Christians to retake seven spheres (or mountains) of cultural influence: religion, family, government, education, media, arts/entertainment, and business.” Reclaiming those, followers believe, brings about the end times. 


“We have lost many of our freedoms in America because we have been asleep," said the late Shirley Dobson, emeritus chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force and the wife of James Dobson, founder of the evangelical political organization Focus on the Family. "I feel if we do not become involved and support the annual National Day of Prayer, we could end up forfeiting this freedom, too.”


“That’s a pretty hot topic going around,” said Line. “We’re seeing more government officials trying to use their position to push their faith onto others to sort of take over areas of government.” 


The courts aren’t likely to curb this activity, Line warns. “The Supreme Court has been stacked with people who no longer support the separation of church and state. In fact, several of them are very clearly against it,” he said. “If given the chance, they would agree that Christianity should be the religion of the country. There’s multiple people on the court who, I think, would sign off on that.”







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