Public officials doing the people’s business are entitled to govern with religiosity as a defining personal attribute, if that’s their bag. If the governor wants to praise Jesus fifty times in his state-of-the-state address it would be odd, but he’s welcome to have at it and let voters decide at the next election if he’s keeping his eye on the balls that really matter.

Even with scores of court rulings over the decades mapping the contours of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, questions about the appropriate role of faith in the public square of a secular republic remain thorny. But if the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause means anything, it is that electeds are not entitled to deploy the imprimatur of the public office they occupy to endorse and promote sectarian faith and behavior.

And yet this is precisely what Nashville Mayor John Cooper is doing with a series of prayer vigils organized by his Deputy Mayor for Community Engagement, Brenda Haywood. As an aside, what’s the deal with a “Deputy Mayor for Community Engagement”? Isn’t community engagement an essential element of the job of every public official who serves a community? It feels redundant, like having a “Deputy Mayor for Doing Mayor Stuff.”

The mere fact of a prayer vigil that public officials attend is not the issue and does not by itself offend the Establishment Clause. Cooper spoke at a vigil at Public Square Park following the tornadoes in March, and he was present for a vigil involving a variety of faith leaders in June following racial justice protests that left the Courthouse with some damage. Previous mayors (including the one to whom I am espoused) have done likewise.

The problem is when the city becomes a formal sponsor of sectarian activity by a sectarian organization at a sectarian venue—and that’s what the Mayor’s office is doing with its recent prayer vigils. In late June Cooper’s office joined with a Christian church and a Christian ministry to put on a prayer vigil on the grounds of the church, an event (according to a mayor’s office news release) “organized in spirit of II Chronicles 7:14.” Another was held in September at Schrader Lane Church of Christ. 

The mere fact of a prayer vigil that public officials attend is not the issue and does not by itself offend the First Amendment Establishment Clause. The problem is when the city becomes a formal sponsor of sectarian activity by a sectarian organization at a sectarian venue. 

Most recently, the Mayor’s office teamed with Cornerstone Nashville Church to present a drive-in prayer vigil at the church in Madison, suggesting Nashvillians “please join us as we pray for our city.” This one is especially interesting—and troubling—for two reasons (which seem likely related to each other).

First, the Cornerstone Church is not without some, shall we say, controversy among those who practice the art of tolerance and the cultivation of liberal values. Back in 2011 Cornerstone’s pastor was an outspoken opponent of an LGBT-related anti-discrimination measure. And Cornerstone is associated with the Assemblies of God denomination, which holds as fundamental that marriage equality is flatly unacceptable (homosexuality being “a sin and strictly forbidden”) and rejects divorce in the absence of adultery. 

Second, on the day before the Cornerstone vigil a tweet promoting it popped up on Mayor Cooper’s Twitter—a tweet that disappeared a day later. Asked about the deleted tweet Cooper spokeswoman Andrea Fanta told me the mayor’s staff “took it down after some members of the community expressed their discomfort with some of the views held by some of the members of this particular church.” Presumed translation: Oops maybe a prayer vigil with a homophobic partner isn’t a good look for a mayor who backs marriage equality.

A now-deleted tweet from Mayor John Cooper's office. (Screenshot from Twitter)
A now-deleted tweet from Mayor John Cooper’s office. (Screenshot from Twitter)

There is nothing wrong with faith communities coming together to pray for Nashville or for Toledo, Ohio or for whatever they want to pray for. There is everything wrong with city government spending public dollars and staff time brokering, creating, and sponsoring what are essentially religious services at sectarian venues. And as the Cornerstone episode amply illustrates, doing this sort of thing not only offends church-state separation that a public official is duty-bound to respect, it also runs the risk of offending basic notions of decency and social justice that put you in office in the first place. 

Fanta confirmed that these vigils are indeed organized by Deputy Mayor Haywood (not merely outside events the city plants its sponsorship on), and that the mayor’s office “is planning to resume these monthly prayer vigils in the spring.” They shouldn’t.