By JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN
BG Independent News
The church that has traditionally opened its doors to the National Day of Prayer event in case of bad weather, has said its doors are now closed to such a close-minded event.
The refusal to allow people of all faiths to participate in the annual National Day of Prayer event on the steps of the Wood County Courthouse has led local churches, organizations and individuals to take a stand.
In the two weeks since it was revealed that only conservative Christians would be allowed to pray at the annual event, Bowling Green residents are distancing themselves from the program, organizing alternative events, and issuing statements of disapproval.
On Wednesday, Trinity United Methodist Church, located next door to the courthouse, issued this statement:
“In recent years Trinity United Methodist Church has served as a rain location for the National Day of Prayer event held at the Wood County Courthouse in Bowling Green. We have valued this community event and certainly value prayer for our nation’s leaders. We believe the National Day of Prayer is a vital event that promotes unity and freedom.
“However, as more information has come to light about the theological beliefs of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, and the theological beliefs recently articulated by the chairperson of the event in an article in the Bowling Green Independent News, Trinity United Methodist Church regrettably will not participate in the 2019 event.
“As currently planned, the event is not in line with United Methodist Theology. In good conscience, our church will not offer our space to host an event that does not fully include people of differing faith streams. At Trinity, we are a church of open hearts, open doors and open minds,” the statement concluded.
This is not the first church to distance itself from the event.
Pastor Gary Saunders, of the First Presbyterian Church, and co-chair of the BG Ministerial Association, has not attended the event in the last few years.
“There are clergy who have quietly stepped back from the event,” he said.
The National Day of Prayer, Saunders said, was designed to be inclusive.
“It’s explicitly been for all people of faith to join in prayer for the country,” he said.
Pastor Mary Jane Saunders, also of First Presbyterian Church, said at the last Not In Our Town meeting, that she stopped attending the prayer event after organizers passed out flyers stating that churches welcoming LGBTQ members are not Christian.
The community organization of Not In Our Town Bowling Green has also taken a stand on the local National Day of Prayer observance. The statement reads:
“Not In Our Town BG welcomes the new conversation about the ways in which our community has observed the National Day of Prayer. Many people were clearly unaware that the Bowling Green ceremony was resourced by a private, exclusive evangelical Christian organization, and now this factor has come to light through the Wood County commissioners.
“We stand with all people of all faiths, or no faith, who feel they have been excluded from what seemed to be a public observance. Such exclusion goes against the very fiber of our movement. As evidenced by the annual NIOT Community Interfaith Breakfast, our vision is for a community in which all faith streams participate and respect each other; in which our religious diversity is an asset, not a problem.
“We support the unfolding efforts around the community to develop additional observances of the National Day of Prayer, so that we can all more fully fulfill the purposes set forth nationally for this unique day,” the NIOT statement concludes.
And it appears that as soon as the Christian-only stance of the event was revealed, many alternative plans to recognize the National Day of Prayer began percolating.
Wood County Administrator Andrew Kalmar said multiple people have since contacted the county commissioners’ office about using space on courthouse grounds for a prayer event on May 2, 2019.
The county commissioners allow anyone to use the courthouse grounds as a meeting place, as long as they do not disrupt public business. The form to apply to use the ground is on the county website.
“It’s public property and they have the right of free speech,” Kalmar said. By law, the commissioners have had to allow the KKK to hold rallies in front of the courthouse.
The city of Bowling Green has also heard from people wanting to hold an alternative event on Wooster Green, according to Assistant Municipal Administrator Joe Fawcett
Anyone wanting exclusive use of Wooster Green must fill out a special use permit. The permit application is not online, since the property is still being constructed.
“I am hopeful the site will be OK by May,” Fawcett said.
Debi Ward Clifford, of Bowling Green, was moved to create an event allowing all faiths to participate.
“I am organizing an alternative all-inclusive event for May 2nd on the Wooster Green. I have reached out to NIOT and the BG Ministerial Association make sure we have as much input and involvement as possible,” Clifford wrote on Facebook alerting the community of her plans.
Local elected officials have also questioned the narrowness of the National Prayer Day event as it has been recognized here. Earlier this month, the Wood County Commissioners asked the organizer Kristel Asmus to make the event more inclusive.
But Asmus, who has been organizing the event on the courthouse steps for 20 years, refused. She has already submitted her application to use the location again next year.
That puts the local National Day of Prayer event at odds with most others around the nation – and at odds with the original intention for the day.
The annual observance, held on the first Thursday of May from noon to 1 p.m., was created in 1952 by a joint resolution of the United States Congress, and signed into law by President Harry Truman. The National Day of Prayer invited people of all faiths to pray for the nation.
However, a privately-funded “task force” was created later to “mobilize the Christian community to intercede for America’s leaders and its families.” The task force’s logic was that since America was “birthed in prayer and in reverence for the God of the Bible,” then only Christian prayers were welcome.
The privately-funded task force twisted the original intent of the day into the “Christian-only” message. It actually goes beyond requiring that the participants be Christian. They must be the right kind of conservative Christians – and must sign forms stating those beliefs.
“That’s not understood very well,” Gary Saunders said. “This is at odds with the true proclamation from the federal government.”
The county commissioners aren’t alone in their distaste for the narrow interpretation of the event. Bowling Green Mayor Dick Edwards has expressed his concerns to Asmus in the past.
“It’s totally out of sync with the national standards,” Edwards said. “We are elected to represent all the people.”
Some members of the local ministerial association have wanted to change the local prayer event back to its original purpose. But that proved awkward, so instead the concept of the Interfaith Breakfast was born.
Gary Saunders is glad the local interpretation of the prayer day was discussed at the county commissioners’ meeting, since he thinks many governmental officials weren’t aware of the divisive nature of the event as it is organized here.
“I’m very pleased it was put on the table. The community needs to know about it, and make informed decisions,” he said.