Simultaneous Statehouse Rallies Generate Verbal Barbs, No Bloodshed

Muckracking media out in full force

by and

Outnumbering their atheist counterparts almost 10-to-one, National Day of Prayer attendees on the West steps of the Idaho State Capitol prayed, sung hymns and were treated to a parade of Idaho's celebrity politicians including Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, former Governor Phil Batt, Idaho Supreme Court Justice Dan Eismann, Nampa Mayor Tom Dale, Idaho governor Dirk Kempthorne and a cadre of pastors, priests, rabbis and religious leaders.

Meanwhile on the front steps of the Idaho State Capitol, a select audience, well-decorated with signs reading "Praying is talking to yourself", "Religions are just cults with more members" and "One nation under the Constitution" listened not only to atheist leaders, but local humanists, tolerant Christians and others supporting separation of Church and State. They won their lawsuit determining which group, the Idaho Atheists Inc. (IAI) or the National Day of Prayer, got to hold their rally on the front steps of the Statehouse when U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled Wednesday in the IAI's favor.

Speakers on the south steps rally included IAI director Susan Harrington and Boise Weekly regular atheist Mail contributor Gary Bennett, who referred to KTVB Channel 7's coverage of the controversy as coming from "Idaho's religious station." And, as anyone could predict, the media was out in droves to witness any potential protests, actions, or potential fights between the God-faring and the Godless.

The crossover protesters were few and far between, lacking the gusto to disrupt either rally. On the atheist side, several men half-jokingly made heckling comments to speakers punctuating their talks with "Amen" and "Thank God." They were closely observed and at one point spoken to about their outbursts in a friendly way by the numerous security officers keeping an eye on the whole situation at both rallies. One woman sat silently on the south steps throughout the hour long atheists rally, mouthing silent prayers and frequently displaying tented hands.

Near the west steps, a lone, anti-Christian protester silently held a cardboard sign reading,"Yeah, you better pray." (The "A" in "Pray", a cute anarchy symbol.) Looking for controversy, local television cameramen flocked to him like flies while he stood their stoically with a black hooded sweatshirt and matching colored bandanna covering his face.

With the numbers of faithful on the West side steps far outnumbering the lone protestor, the full weight and power of the Christian community was evident by the clear government presence in attendance, including the military color guard, numbers of suited government officials on the steps and frequent references to the importance of Christianity in government.

While the Idaho Day of Equality rally's speakers on the south steps touted separation of church and state, stating how the founding fathers purposely avoided the mention of religion in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne made it a point to comment that George Washington had, in fact, included the word "God" in his inaugural address. Both rally's speakers took every opportunity to spout constitutionally based insults at the "other rally" on the "other" steps.

Both sides seemed to use variances of the phrase "It's not freedom of religion, but freedom from religion," each twisting it in their own ways to suit their beliefs.

From an audience perspective, the West side steps hosting the National Day of Prayer was much more entertaining, including a rousing National Anthem by Sally Tibbs, a six-part male gospel harmony by The Faithful Men, hymn singing, enraptured swaying with hands held high, a louder and clearer PA system, and shelter from the elements for the guest speakers. It was in marked contrast to the South steps, where the atheists spoke at a bare podium with a sign that kept spinning in the wind and accentuated their recent court victory by repeatedly ringing the Capitol's large Liberty Bell replica. While no singing was heard there, two men did hand out smiley face balloons to attendees with an attached card that said, "On behalf of Christian believers who have ever treated you with contempt, disregard, or arrogance, please accept this apology. Peace to you in Jesus Name." While lacking in musical entertainment, attendees on the southern steps got a civics lesson and a balloon.

Running well into, ironically, the the second hour over on the west steps, Governor Kempthorne went on to say, "There are people who claim to be tolerant who are intolerant of an hour of prayer. Who does it hurt, this hour of prayer? It hurts no one, but it sustains millions." As the rain slowly quit, perhaps prayed away by the faithful, Kempthorne went on, "Today I choose to side with those who believe, because I do believe."

Former Idaho Governor Phil Batt, acting as emcee for the National Day of Prayer event lead a prayer in which he prayed for the media to be able to report this event fairly and unbiased. He said that because religion had founded the country, reporters should reflect that "fact" in their reporting. (Yes, the devil makes us write bad things about people.) He then included in his prayer comments about the "liberal judiciary" and "activist judges," although it was uncertain if they were being prayed for or not.

Pastor Orvil Stiles, Idaho coordinator for the National Day of Prayer said that at 93 years of age this would be his last year organizing the event. He commented it was the best attended National day of Prayer Idaho had ever seen, in part, perhaps because of the recent controversy and media attention. Then they ended the rally with a rousing "God Bless America" lead by Sally Tibbs.

Ironically, the view from the west side of the capitol gave the National Day of Prayer attendees a nice view of the 10 Commandments monument moved this past year from Julia Davis Park. One observer noted it allowed them to be "Closer my God to thee."