When it comes to speaking at religious events, the rules for elected officials are pretty damn simple: Don’t do it while acting as a representative of the government. That means Bob the Christian can tell you how awesome Jesus is, but Bob the Mayor has to remain secular while on duty.
Those lines crossed numerous times last month in Mission Viejo, California.
Both Assistant Sheriff Don Barnes and City Councilwoman Wendy Bucknum (who is also Mayor Pro Tem) appeared in their official capacities during a National Day of Prayer event. Bucknum even bragged about how the event was taking place “on city property.”
It’s an egregious violation of church/state separation. And the Freedom From Religion Foundation is now getting involved.
In a letter to Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, they write:
As sheriff, you represent a diverse population that consists of not only Christians, but also atheists and agnostics who do not believe in prayer. Your officer’s active participation in the Mission Viejo All City Prayer Meeting in his official capacity while in uniform unabashedly promoted a religious event, sending an official message of endorsement of religion over non-religion and of exclusion to the one in five Americans and one in three Americans under 30 who are not religious. It alienates non-Christians and nonbelievers in Orange County by turning them into political outsiders in their own community.
They sent a similar message to Bucknum:
Government officials can worship, pray, and participate in religious events in their personal capacities. But they are not permitted to provide credibility or prestige to their religion by lending a government office and government title to religious events. Their office and title belong to “We the people,” not the office’s temporary occupant. As mayor pro tem, you have taken an oath of office to uphold the secular U.S. Constitution, and must scrupulously avoid using your public office to promote or advance your personal religious beliefs.
The question is whether they will take any action steps to prevent this violation from happening again (that is, if they even understand that this was a violation).
Making matters worse, when the whistleblower who alerted me to this issue contacted the pastor in charge of this NDOP event to ask why there were no Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish participants, he was told by the pastor: “Currently, we want to keep it Christian based.”
All the more reason to be disturbed that city representatives, in their official capacities, participated in the event.