By PHILLIP RAWLS
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — A five-minute prayer that opened a meeting of the state's utility regulatory board has ended up getting more attention than the purpose of the day-long gathering — whether to lower the electric rates paid by customers of Alabama Power Co.
The opening prayer by Prattville Tea Party leader John Delvin Jordan has raised concerns from organizations inside and outside Alabama. Equality Alabama says the prayer marginalized gay and lesbian residents. The Freedom from Religion Foundation cites it as an example of why government bodies shouldn't begin meetings with prayers.
The president of the Alabama Public Service Commission, who invited Jordan to pray, said she supports the commission's long-standing tradition of opening prayers and they will continue.
"What our nation needs is more prayer, not less," President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh said Thursday.
The commission met July 17 for the last of a series of public hearings to discuss the rate structure of the state's largest electric utility. But the more than 10 hours of testimony that day has received far less attention than Jordan's prayer.
Jordan was at the commission meeting to participate in the hearing as a tea party leader. A member of East Memorial Baptist Church, he began his prayer by asking people to raise their hands if they believed in prayer, if they believed God answers prayer, and if they needed prayer.
Toward the end, he said, "God, we've taken you out of our schools. We've taken you out of our prayers. We've murdered your children. We've said it's OK to have same-sex marriage, God. We have sinned."
He asked those who were in agreement to say, "Amen." Many did.
Jordan said Cavanaugh did not ask to preview his prayer and he spoke from the heart rather than a script. He said it resulted in him being attacked in phone calls, in emails and on Facebook. Many of those have called him a pastor, which he's not.
"It bothers me not for myself, but it hurts me to see my God, my church, President Cavanaugh and my family being lied about," Jordan said in an interview.
Despite the criticism, Jordan said he stands by what he said because he felt inspired to say it. "God says at a given time he will give you the words to say," he said.
Opening prayers are common at meetings of the Legislature and government boards in Alabama, but they are usually short and offered by ministers seeking wisdom for government officials, blessings for the state, and safety for Alabamians serving in the military overseas.
Equality Alabama spokesman Michael Hansen said Friday the Birmingham-based equal rights group has no position on public prayer, but Jordan's speech was not the normal kind at the start of a government meeting. "This sounded more like a political speech," said Hansen, who attended the PSC meeting.
He said Equality Alabama has gathered more than 500 signatures on a petition seeking an apology from Cavanaugh because she gave Jordan a certificate of appreciation for his prayer and gave the audience his email address to get his weekly religious messages.
A ruling 30 years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Nebraska Legislature to continue its tradition of opening sessions with a prayer by a chaplain, but the court said the prayer must not proselytize, advance any one religion or disparage any other faith or belief.
"This prayer was way over the line," said Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Madison, Wis.
The U.S. Supreme Court could provide more guidance on prayers before government boards when its new term starts Oct. 1. It will consider whether a New York town council that starts most meetings with a Christian prayer violates the separation of church and state.
No matter how the court rules, Seidel said government boards should skip prayers and get on with their business because prayers are becoming increasingly divisive in an America that is becoming more diverse.
"There is absolutely no need to have prayer before a government meeting. It serves no purpose except to pander to a particular group of voters," he said.
Cavanaugh, a former chair of the Alabama Republican Party, blames the criticism on "a bunch of liberals from outside of Alabama," and said prayers have already been lined up for the PSC's next two meetings on Aug. 13 and Sept. 10.
At one of those meetings, the PSC will decide the Alabama Power rate issue that was the reason for the July 17 meeting, she said.
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