Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. FFRF.org

FFRF chides new governors over sectarian events

Vol. 36 No. 02 March 2019
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

It was an inauspicious start to the new terms of several governors around the country, as they made references to God or held worship services as part of the official inaugural celebrations.

FFRF urged each of these governors, in writing, that the governor’s offices in these states honor our secular form of government and keep divisive and unnecessary religion out of state-sponsored events.

Ohio

An overdose of bibles at the new Ohio governor’s swearing in caused FFRF to be concerned about the constitutional health of the Buckeye State.

Gov. Mike DeWine chose to be officially sworn on Jan. 14 in at a religious ceremony held in his home, with Christian hymns, prayers, and an overemphasis on religion that included swearing in on not one, not two, but nine bibles.

This conveyed a fealty not to the United States, but rather to DeWine’s own religious beliefs, FFRF asserts. Instead of swearing in on nine bibles, it would have been far more appropriate for DeWine to swear in on the U.S. Constitution, a godless and entirely secular document, whose only references to religion are exclusionary.

Oklahoma

Newly inaugurated Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt had not even been in office one week before violating the Constitution he took an oath to uphold.

The day after his inauguration, Stitt and his wife attended an Inaugural prayer service at the First Baptist Church of Moore. During the service, he reportedly declared his mission as a governor to be a religious mission, to “join in with what God is doing in Oklahoma.”

Then, Oklahoma First Lady Sarah Stitt followed with similarly troublesome statements, telling Christians to use their position in elected office to convert people to Christianity: “We are God’s kingdom here on Earth. It is our call to go out into our state and save people and bring people to Him.”

South Dakota

On Jan. 6 — her first full day as governor of South Dakota — Gov. Kristi Noem sponsored a church service in the Capitol rotunda. The event was billed as an “Inaugural Worship Service with Governor Noem,” explicitly tying this religious event to her inauguration and public office. Despite assurances that “all [were] welcome,” this event made no attempt at being an “interfaith” service; every aspect was decidedly Christian in nature.

The service featured Christian music, a full sermon by a pastor, and multiple group prayers. One of these prayers, led by a woman who identified herself as the new governor’s family friend, endorsed a Christian nationalist vision for South Dakota. She even pivoted from Christian nationalism to exorcism, praying that “any demon that may try to come in this place is kicked out.”

“We hope that you can see how your endorsement of an event at which attendees were asked to pray that ‘the Holy Spirit absolutely takes over every corner and every crevice of this Capitol and this state’ sent an unmistakable message to all nonreligious South Dakotans ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community,’” FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara wrote to the governor, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court. “We urge you to focus on the secular business of governing, and leave church services where they belong — in a church.”

Tennessee

Tennessee Gov.-elect Bill Lee sold tickets to a government-sponsored religious service under the guise of it being the Inaugural Ceremony. Media reported the Jan. 19 event as a “star-studded prayer service at the Ryman Auditorium.”

The governor-elect’s website sold tickets to the event, offering those who pay $7,500 “reserved section seating for two at the Inaugural swearing-in ceremony and the worship service.”

Wisconsin

The new governor in FFRF’s home state started his tenure with a major state/church misstep, causing FFRF to formally complain.

On Jan. 7, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ Inaugural — the first state-sponsored event with him at the helm — included religious (almost completely Christian) content that led local FFRF members who were in attendance to feel immediately excluded. For example, the ceremony opened with an invocation by the Rev. Willie Brisco that plainly conveyed a Christian message.

The occasion also included a concert of Christian songs by William Reed III Community Choir, a gospel choir, featuring repetitive theological lyrics about worshiping Jesus.

Even the ordinarily banal inclusion of “God bless” by various speakers contributed to an overall impression that the event was intended mainly as a celebration for Wisconsin Christians.