A prominent atheist group has demanded that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi drop a planned prayer vigil at a congressional event remembering the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter of complaint to Pelosi on Monday, urging the Democratic House leader to drop the prayer part of the event, calling it an “improper marriage of state and church.”
“The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits government actors from using their position to endorse a religious message. Use of your office to promote the ‘prayerfulness’ of what should be a uniting and secular event sends a message that your office prefers religion over nonreligion,” wrote FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker.
“As Speaker of the House, your letter announcing the official prayer vigil encourages your colleagues to likewise mix their personal religion with their governmental duties.”
The atheist group leadership went on to claim that the event “unnecessarily appears to tie patriotism with piety” and argued that the Jan. 6 riot was fueled by Christian nationalism.
“One of the goals of the insurrection was to unite church and state, and the insurrectionists clearly also believed ‘God was on their side,’” they continued.
“Government-sponsored religious events are inherently divisive and have no place in our secular democracy. This prayer vigil should be canceled.”
On Dec. 30, Pelosi released a “Dear Democratic Colleague” letter, in which she laid out a list of activities being held to commemorate the anniversary of the Capitol riot.
These included an event that would feature testimonials, a moderated conversation about the event, a moment of silence on the House floor, and a prayer vigil on the Capitol steps.
“These events are intended as an observance of reflection, remembrance and recommitment, in a spirit of unity, patriotism and prayerfulness. All events will be live-streamed, so that members can watch and participate from their districts,” read the letter, in part.
“The patriotism and courage of our members as we prepare for this difficult day is an inspiration, for which I sincerely thank you.”
In addition to the events endorsed by Pelosi, large numbers of churches and other groups plan to hold their own vigils and gatherings in remembrance of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. While some people were allowed to enter the building and meandered around, others stormed the building.
Many of these events, such as the vigil planned by the First Congregational Church of Williamstown, Massachusetts, will be done to denounce Christian nationalism.
In a letter urging other churches to join them, the First Congregation Church’s leadership argued that the Jan. 6 riot showed the extent to which “religious faith was being exploited to fuel anti-democratic violence.”
"[W]e will hold a one-hour public protest to denounce this linkage of faith with the anti-democratic forces that continue to foster division, white supremacy, and authoritarianism in our country right now,” stated the church.
“Even before Jan. 6, 2021, our church had grown concerned with the misuse of religious language and symbolism to advocate for political extremism. Employing the cross or figures of Christ to justify threats or to condone coercion contradicts our conviction that Christ is the Prince of Peace and our guide toward reconciliation with each other.”
Other groups, such as the Pro-Trump organization, Look Ahead America, will be hosting vigils on Thursday in support of those who entered the Capitol building on Jan. 6 of last year.
The group will also remember Ashli Babbitt, an unarmed Air Force veteran who was shot dead when she tried to enter the House chamber where members of Congress were sheltering during the protests. The officer who shot her was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
“January 6th is the one-year anniversary of the beginning of our government’s immoral and unconstitutional political persecution of hundreds of our brothers and sisters who exercised their First Amendment rights to seek redress of grievances on January 6th,” stated LAA Executive Director Matt Braynard last month.
“Around the country and even around the world, we invite our supporters to host these vigils to raise awareness of our government’s betrayal of these citizens and our fundamental values to perpetuate the phony ‘insurrection’ narrative.”