By Tia Lyons
EL DORADO — The second annual 40 Days of Prayer campaign is into its 17th day in El Dorado, and once again, the city is facing opposition from a group who is alleging that the campaign violates the U.S. Constitution.
While Mayor Frank Hash said he does not plan to respond to the latest correspondence from the Washington, D.C.-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, he said he wants to avoid “provoking these folks.”
A similar issue arose with a different group last year when the first 40 Days was launched in El Dorado.
Alderman Judy Ward spearheaded the effort by calling on local pastors and citizens to unite in prayer to help quell incidents of violence and increase peace in the community.
The campaign was held from Sept. 27 until Nov. 5 in 2015, with participants focusing on a different prayer topic each day.
Organizational meetings were held in City Hall, and the prayer topics were posted onto the Facebook pages of City Hall and the El Dorado Police Department.
Shortly after the campaign got under way, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group, sent Hash a letter requesting that postings about 40 Days be removed from the city’s websites.
City officials said then that a local resident had contacted the group with a complaint about the postings.
FFRF argued that the Internet postings were illegal because they indicated that the city was promoting religion.
Hash initially complied with the FFRF request.
However, the city council dug in its heels and later took a dramatic vote, with each alderman standing one by one during roll-call in favor of a motion to repost the daily prayer topics on the municipal websites.
The 40 Days campaign rolled on and reached its completion date with a downtown prayer walk and gathering. Participants agreed to do it again this year, beginning Oct. 1.
Still concerned about possible legal ramifications, Hash, Ward, and Alderman Billy Blann and a contingency of religious leaders from El Dorado and Camden, who had expressed in interest starting its own 40 Days, traveled to Little Rock in January to meet with a group that included Gov. Asa Hutchinson and legal counsel from the Arkansas Municipal League.
With information gleaned from the meeting, El Dorado city officials made some changes to avoid any charges or perception that it is endorsing religious activity.
For instance, the city council now conducts a prayer before its regular meetings are called to order.
Aldermen have noted that atheists, agnostics and non-theists are also allowed to post on the city’s Facebook pages.
Also, prayer topics for 40 Days 2016 are not being posted to any of the city’s Internet sites.
But the revisions do not comply with the Constitution, according to Americans United, which is described on its website as a nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation as the only way to ensure religious freedom for all Americans.
Ian Smith, staff attorney for Americans United, sent a letter to Hash in August, informing him that the group had received a complaint about plans for the 2016 40 Days in El Dorado.
He referenced a story that appeared Jan. 24 in the News-Times regarding the trip to Little Rock.
“The city appears to believe that it can render 2016’s planned Forty Days of Prayer event constitutional by removing overt references to Christianity in the city’s postings and proclamations regarding the event, and by allowing atheists, agnostics, and other non-theists to post comments on the city’s online religious posts,” Smith wrote.
“These modifications cannot render the event constitutional because it will still involve unambiguous city sponsorship and endorsement of religious activity,” Smith continued. “We request that you refrain from proceeding with the event.”
In response to the letter, Hash reiterated that 40 Days is “being organized and promoted strictly by concerned citizens and local pastors of our community.”
Smith followed up by insisting that city government officials and offices participated in the 2015 event, which Smith said “flagrantly” violated the Constitution.
He also said that Hash’s comments did not address American United’s request that the city not participate in 40 Days 2016.
A question Smith posed to Hash on Aug. 30 remains unanswered by the mayor.
“Does the city of El Dorado and its various governmental offices plan to participate in the 40 Days of Prayer event again?” Smith wrote.
He pressed for an answer as Oct. 1 neared.
In another letter dated Sept. 26, Smith referenced a story that appeared on Aug. 19 in the News-Times and described an announcement by Ward that planning for 40 Days will start with a meeting that was scheduled for Aug. 30 in the Council Chamber.
During the meeting, participants stressed that Forty Days is “pastor-led” and “church-led.”
“Media reports have made clear that El Dorado is intent on holding another ‘40 Days of Prayer’ event this year, with at least one city alderman deeply involved in the planning of the event,” Smith wrote.
“Should you insist on proceeding as you did last year, you invite an expensive lawsuit that you cannot win,” Smith warned.
Americans United asked Hash to respond by Oct. 1 with details on how the city planned to proceed.
Hash did not reply.
“No, ma’am I didn’t. I’m not going to respond to those people,” Hash said. “We’re to continue to do subtle things, like not doing the prayer after the council meetings are called to order.”
Hash pointed to the state’s participation in the filing of an amicus brief in Supreme Court of Washington state, who has filed suit against a flower shop owner there.
Citing her religious beliefs, the business owner declined to do business for a same-sex wedding.
The state is alleging discrimination and unfair business practices.
Attorney General Leslie Rutledge joined attorneys general and governors in 12 other states — Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and West Virginia, Kansas and Kentucky — in urging the Washington Supreme Court to rule in the business owner’s favor.
Hash said he supported Rutledge’s stance for religious liberty.
“If the city is carrying on as it did last year and has made no changes, then we will be forced to seriously consider filing a lawsuit against the city for violating the U.S. Constitution,” Smith wrote in an email to the News-Times.
“Let them file,” Hash said. “I’m not trying to purposely provoke these folks, but I’m not going to respond to them, either.”
Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or by email at tlyons@ eldoradonews.com.