Update: Two local mayors have cancelled their appearances at the luncheon, ECM has learned.
By Miriam Raftery
May 4, 2017 (El Cajon) – On Monday, ECM reported on objections raised by some local residents to the controversial “Christian nation” advocate David Barton being chosen to speak at the annual East County Mayors prayer luncheon this Thursday, May 4th at the Crystal Palace in El Cajon.
Now the controversy has intensified, with a First Amendment watchdog group sending a letter to mayors of El Cajon, La Mesa, Lemon Grove and Santee objecting to their participation and asking them to disassociate themselves from the event. The letter was signed by Andrew Seidel , staff attorney with the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
In addition, local residents are asking why alternate versions of the flyer were circulated to religious and secular groups – the latter omitting all mention of Barton and presenting the event as "progressive" oriented.
Barton’s controversial views
Barton has openly advocated against separation of church and state, distorted founding father’s views and the Constitution, had his book on Thomas Jefferson pulled by its publisher for falsehoods, and advocated racist views including deleting Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez from textbooks. He has claimed AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality and criticized non-Christians for exercising constitutional rights. He is listed as an extremist on a Southern Poverty Law Center watch list and the accuracy of his works have been debunked by conservative Christian scholars. (Find links and details here.)
Freedom From Religion letter hints at legal action
Freedom From Religion’s letter notes that the officials lent their public titles as mayor to this “private religious event” that encourages participants to meet the mayors from four local cities.
“As mayors you represent a diverse population that consists of not only Christians but also atheists and agnostics,” the letter notes, adding that 23% of Americans identify as nonreligious. (Unstated but also true is that East County also includes many residents with religions that are not Christian, including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and more.)
The letter claims that “federal and state constitutions dictate that you as mayor may not bless such events or allow your title as mayor to be used for any purely religious event such as this…It is a fundamental principle of Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot in any way promote, advance, or otherwise endorse religions. It can neither promote one religion over another, nor religion over nonreligion.”
In 2002, a federal court in Georgia enjoined a city and mayor against organizing, advertising promoting or endorsing a prayer breakfast, the letter notes. (See Newman v. City of East Point) However that ruling also held that officials from the city could participate provided no city funds or employees were used to promote it and no appearance was presented that it was endorsed by the city, its mayor or other officials. However Seidel adds, “Even if no government resources have yet been involved in the planning and execution of this prayer lunch, simply appearing in your official capacity as Mayor presents constitutional problems. FFRP won an injunction against the mayor of Denver, Colorado, over his promotion, endorsement, and sponsorship of a `Day of Prayer...’” Officials can participate personally in prayer or religions events, Seidel added, but he contends it is illegal “to lend the event the prestige of a mayoral title..”
He further objects specifically to Barton because of facts listed above and because “Barton regularly impugns religious minorities, including Muslims and nonbelievers.” The letter further notes that Barton is not a historian, does not have a “real PhD”, nor any training in history or the law, two of his favorite topics, and has been accused of “academic fraud” by historians. Even the pro-creationism Discovery Institute has noted Barton’s work is filled with “embarrassing factual errors” and “misleading claims.”
The letter concludes, “The Mayor’s Office cannot allow a secular, public title to be used as part of this event, nor can it organize or promote the event. Moreover, no leader interested in serving all his or her citizens should lend their presence and legitimacy to Barton. Please inform us in writing of the steps your office will take to rectify this situation.”
Deceptive flyers with alternate facts
Local residents are also raising questions, asking why were two different flyers on tomorrow’s East County Mayors’ prayer luncheon circulated to religious and non-religious groups?
A flyer disseminated by the Interfaith Council matches what’s on the event webpage, listing David Barton prominently at the top center as speaker, also proclaiming the phrases Government, business, church” “Meeting needs together” and United we stand.” (Photo, right)
But an alternate flyer disseminated at Communities Against Substance Abuse (CASA), which has some progressive activists as members, by contrast, makes no mention of Barton and instead shows photos of the four East County mayors only. (photo, left) It’s message reads, “Partner with progressive leaders in grassroots efforts to elevate the culture of our communities. Mobilize your talents and passions into action.”
One such activist was appalled to learn that Barton was the featured speaker. He forwarded it to ECM with an email stating, “You'd never guess what awaits you from this flyer!” He called the alternate flyer “creepy and misleading.”
Mayor Racquel Vasquez of Lemon Grove has sent regrets and will now not be attending the luncheon, Councilmember Jennifer Mendoza informed ECM today. Mendoza has also cancelled her attendance at the lunch due to Barton's participation.
Mayor Mark Arapostathis of La Mesa has also reportedly cancelled his appearance but did not state a reason: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton/2017/05/03/mayor-of-la-m....
Organizers of event remain shrouded
It remains unclear what organization or individual invited Barton, and where the money collected from attendees will go. There is no organizational name listed on either of the flyers circulated. The Chamber of Commerce, which listed the event on its website, has disavowed involvement. An RSVP number goes to an individual at a local car dealership. Sources have told ECM that one or more local churches are involved in organizing the annual event, along with possibly a local mayor, however no evidence has been brought forward to confirm just who is backing the event that has now come under scrutiny both for its constitutionality and the choice of a speaker voicing support for a government with policies officially intolerant of anyone who is not an Evangelical Christian, as well as remarks offensive to African-Americans, gays, Latinos, atheists and religious minorities.