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Forgive Them, Father, For They Know Not Where to Pray

National Day of Prayer is losing its reverential tone in Fort Lauderdale this year. The Broward County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says it's marching into federal court to try to block Mayor Jim Naugle from using his official position to promote the National Day of Prayer on May 7.

Naugle's response: "That's why some people call them the Atheists and Criminal Lobby Union."

At issue is what will happen in the Fort Lauderdale City Commission chambers between noon and 1 p.m. on May 7. Naugle plans to issue a prayer-day proclamation and participate in a ceremony in the commission chambers, which the Broward ACLU complains is "basically a revival meeting."

For at least three years, the ACLU has argued that Naugle, acting as mayor, is overly exuberant in his prayer-day celebration, and more importantly, that the combination of mayoral proclamation and commission-chamber ceremony violates the separation-of-church-and-state provision of the First Amendment. For three years Naugle has largely ignored the ACLU's stated concerns, except in 1996 when he said that he would pray for them.

"We've been a little passive the last couple of years," admits Broward ACLU Legal Chair Barry Butin.

No more. When it comes to prayer, Broward's ACLU is seeking a higher legal authority. The chapter's board last week authorized filing a federal lawsuit against Naugle and the city to block his prayer-day proclamation.

This news did not send the mayor to his knees, trembling. "What are they going to do," he asks, "arrest me for praying?"

No, just stop you from proclaiming, replied Ephraim Hess, the ACLU officer overseeing the lawsuit. "It will seek to enjoin the mayor from sanctioning a religious activity with the city's 'seal of approval,' which is basically what's been happening," Hess said.

The ACLU especially objects to Naugle's proclamation, which, some truths being eternal, is the same every year. It begins, "Whereas, prayer to the Almighty God is regarded by millions as the most important utterance of mankind for its benefit," then proceeds to "the importance of putting our trust only in that which is worthy of our total confidence" (presumably not a reference to the Fort Lauderdale Commission). The proclamation concludes that the National Day of Prayer permits Americans "to acknowledge our dependence upon God, to give thanks for the many blessings our country has received from Him, to recognize our need for personal and corporate renewal of moral values, and to invoke God's blessings upon our leaders."

To the ACLU, that talk of God smacks of Christianity. Under the First Amendment prohibition, Hess argues, "you can't have a government official sanctioning any particular religion. The mayor's a Christian, and he's coming out with a proclamation thinly veiled as endorsing Christianity. There are constituents who pay their taxes who don't believe in God and don't want the mayor sanctioning a belief in God."

The ACLU also has a problem with the prayer-day observance being held in the city commission chambers, which the mayor reserves each year for the ceremony. Last year ACLU members tried to get sneaky. Immediately after National Day of Prayer 1997, they tried to book the chambers for a noon event on prayer day 1998 -- only to be told the mayor has a "standing reservation," Hess said. "I'm sure the atheists would have a big problem with that, if the mayor is in fact using his political clout or his power to make sure that room is reserved."

This year the new get-tough ACLU is pursuing a more dramatic tactic: Counter-Attack by Seminar. They're trying to reserve the commission room for the hour after the prayer-day ceremony for a seminar on the separation of church and state.

What the ACLU would really like is for prayer-day ceremonies to move outside, to a park or a flagpole, locations considered more of a "public forum" than an official government meeting room. "When city officials, in their official capacity, endorse and participate in what can only be considered a religious service within the city commission chambers, the Constitution is undermined, no matter how well-intentioned such participation may be," the Broward ACLU wrote in a 1996 letter to Fort Lauderdale officials.

The City Clerk's office confirmed the commission room was personally reserved by the mayor for the prayer-day observance. Naugle says the location is an issue not of constitutional law but of South Florida heat. "The origins of bringing it inside was there was concern as far as comfort goes for people to be in an air-conditioned place," Naugle said. He also pointed out the commission room is used by a number of groups, including clubs, corporations, and Alcoholics Anonymous. "The city commission chamber is a public meeting room," the mayor said. "All kinds of different organizations use the room. I don't think there's anything in our Constitution or Bill of Rights that says that any group can use the room except for a religious organization."

The Broward chapter makes another charge: not only has the commission room been used to endorse a specific religion -- Christianity -- but prayer-day ceremonies have been dominated by members of one church, 7000-member Coral Ridge Presbyterian, which an ACLU memo calls "a church of the religious right run by a televangelist, the Rev. D. James Kennedy."

According to the ACLU's Hess, "the people who put this on and the people who show up happen to be Christians. Reverend Kennedy and some of his people are, I believe, strongly behind it."

The ACLU even has a detailed report on past prayer-day ceremonies from member Douglas J. Blass, who observed many of the participants arriving in "Coral Ridge Presbyterian buses" and only Coral Ridge Presbyterian leaders appeared to be in charge.

Describing the 1993 observance, Blass reported that Naugle and Kennedy "started the ritual by first drawing everyone's attention to them." Naugle presented his proclamation, Kennedy prayed, then invited others to pray. "The Reverend Kennedy stayed at the front of the room, as the controlling person in the room, and proceeded to roll his eyes back in his head as each person stood and invoked the name of Jesus in prayer...; the mayor was in the room towards the front, also apparently in a control position," (a position the mayor seldom attains in commission meetings).

Told the ACLU is playing hardball this year and is on the offensive against mighty Coral Ridge Presbyterian, the mayor, apparently savoring this new intelligence, responded, "Oooh, oooh," then insisted prayer-day ceremonies "have not been limited to any church."

Naugle added that many elected officials issue prayer-day proclamations, including the President of the United States and the governor of Florida. In rebuttal the ACLU observes that the President doesn't issue the proclamation and then lead a church service on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Government, argues the ACLU, "must avoid excessive entanglement with religion.

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Dan Lovely

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