Clergy prayer ban at 9/11 event faulted

September 2, 2011 - 2:00 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Christian conservatives are condemning Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to bar clergy-led prayer at the 10th anniversary commemoration of the terrorist attacks, calling the program an insult. Others wonder whether the mayor is trying to dodge the potentially thorny issue of including a Muslim representative.

The mayor's office says the annual event focuses on relatives of Sept. 11 victims and has never included clergy invocations. Bloomberg has said it would be impossible to include everyone who would like to participate.

Evelyn Erskine, a Bloomberg spokeswoman, said the program was designed in coordination with 9/11 families and included readings that were "spiritual and personal in nature." Six moments of silence were planned for personal reflection and prayer. Police and fire chaplains who work with the 9/11 families will attend.

"Rather than have disagreements over which religious leaders participate, we would like to keep the focus of our commemoration ceremony on the family members of those who died," Erskine said.

Several New York religious leaders say they understand the mayor's position. They point to the multitude of religious events surrounding the anniversary as evidence faith isn't being overlooked. "I just think a decision was made to give priority to the families. If this means more families will be attending, I think all of us can accept that," said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis.

However, critics including the Catholic League and the Family Research Council, argue the program reflects prejudice against religion and ignores the central role religious groups played in the city's 9/11 response. For weeks, Trinity Wall Street, an Episcopal congregation near ground zero, allowed rescue workers to operate from its chapel. Faith-based service agencies volunteered for a range of duties, from feeding recovery teams to counseling families. Clergy organized interfaith services for the city, most prominently at Yankee Stadium.

"Nobody was turning religious leaders away from the scene 10 years ago. Why are they being banned from the 10th anniversary?" said the Rev. Richard Land, who leads the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant group. "The only answer pure and simple is anti-religious prejudice."

The issue has once again put ground zero and the Sept. 11 remembrance at the center of debate over religion in American public life.

Last year, protests erupted in response to plans for a Muslim community center and mosque near the site. In July, American Atheists, an advocacy group in New Jersey, sued when a cross that had formed from steel beams that had emerged from the rubble was moved to the site of the national September 11 Memorial and Museum. The building is on government property and is partly funded by tax dollars. The American Center for Law and Justice, founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson, has vowed to defend the cross placement and is preparing a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of a New York firefighter.

Not long ago, any New York mayor who left clergy out of a public celebration of this magnitude would pay a major political price within the city. Bloomberg appears not to have suffered such a penalty so far — and Marc Stern, associate general counsel of the American Jewish Committee, said has an idea why. "I think it's about the place of religion in the culture," which has grown more secular.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center who researches religious liberty, said he worries that Bloomberg may have jettisoned clergy prayer to avoid any controversy about Islam, since he would have to include a Muslim representative. Land, Donohue and others insist they would welcome a Muslim prayer leader on the program, along with a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister and a rabbi. But with the growth of the anti-Islam movement, Haynes said Bloomberg is in a "a no-win situation here."

Bill Donohue, head of the Catholic League, an anti-defamation group based in New York, said the Bloomberg administration seems to be arguing that clergy would detract from the event. The Washington-based Family Research Council, a conservative Christian public policy group, has posted a petition demanding Bloomberg reverse his decision. More than 50,000 people had signed as of Friday, the council says. The American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss., whose policy director argues that freedom of religion applies only to Christians, called the exclusion of prayer an insult to "the faith of Americans and indeed to God himself."

Land rejected any suggestion that outsiders were trying to cause trouble for New York. He said the event was a national one, commemorating a day when all Americans stood with the city. Fernando Cabrera, a City Council member who is also an evangelical pastor in the Bronx, has called the absence of prayer in the program "a tragic mistake." The Rev. Thomas Margrave, an Episcopal priest who is a board member of the New York State Association of Fire Chaplains, said "it seems extremely curious" that prayer is included in so many public ceremonies, including the presidential inauguration, but not at ground zero, where prayer was so important.

However, there has been little other protest from the city's religious community. Roman Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan said he had met with Bloomberg about a month ago and they had discussed the ceremony.

"He, too, I think was under some restrictions. I think other people were involved in the planning not just him," Dolan said in an interview last week with the cable news outlet NY1. "He was very honest and up front. 'I think it's very limited. It may not be the way I want it, but it's just going to be immediate family and the political people who were in office then and political people now.' I'm fine with that."

Dolan said he and other clergy have "stacks of invitations" for prayer services surrounding the anniversary.