The inclusion of prayers during last month’s Baraboo Gathers meeting drew a rebuke from the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Organized by leaders from the Baraboo School District, the city and religious community, the Nov. 19 event at Baraboo High School was meant to address a controversial photo of Baraboo students appearing to make a Nazi salute.
“Injecting religion into a public school-sponsored event intended to unify the community has the opposite impact,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, the foundation’s co-president, said in a press release last month. “Religion is exclusionary and only exacerbates the division from which the Baraboo community is attempting to heal.”
The program’s main speakers were Madison Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, Baraboo Mayor Mike Palm and District Administrator Lori Mueller, who focused their messages on the historical context of the gesture, the impact of the photo and the character of the community, students and teachers.
But before they took their turns at the podium, emcee Eric Logan invited Emanuel United Methodist Church Pastor Blake Overlien to lead an opening prayer meant to “frame our intentions for our gathering tonight.”
“I would like to offer a prayer for the healing of our community and our families,” Overlien told the audience of more than 200 community members, including Baraboo High School students. “You are welcome to join me if you wish. Let’s pray together.”
He used Christian phrases such as “our heavenly Father” and “in our Lord’s name” during the prayer.
Members of the clergy also closed the program. Pastor Marianne Cotter of First United Methodist Church in Baraboo said she recognized there were people present of different faiths as well as those with no religious affiliation, but added, “as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am a firm believer in the power of prayer.”
She read a litany that referred repeatedly to “God,” waiting after each line for members of the audience to repeat it.
“A concerned local resident” informed the Freedom From Religion Foundation of the religious overtones of Baraboo Gathers, according to the organization’s press release. Foundation staff attorney Ryan Jayne sent letters to both Mueller and Palm stating the inclusion of religion in a government-sponsored event is unconstitutional.
Jayne pointed to the fact that all of the prayers were led by Christian ministers, which was “particularly inappropriate given Christianity’s central role in anti-Semitic white nationalism.” The secular nonprofit organization promotes the separation of religion and government.
“Aside from the religious content of the program, FFRF strongly supports the messages of this event’s speakers that condemned white supremacy and community divisiveness,” Jayne wrote.
At the close of the event, Pastor Lisa Newberry of First Presbyterian Church asked attendees to write down on “seed paper” the change they wanted to see in Baraboo. If they weren’t comfortable writing it down, Newberry encouraged attendees to place their intentions on paper, because “we trust that God does not only read graphite, but also reads our hearts and minds.”
The pieces of paper were buried in pots supplied at the event to become flowers, which Newberry said would be disbursed around town.
Both the school district and the city posted invitations to the program to their social media accounts.
After the program, school board member Doug Mering said he didn’t think the clergy members were promoting any particular religion. He had previously emphasized he was speaking as a concerned citizen and not for the board.
Mueller later replied to an email from the Baraboo News Republic asking how the speakers were chosen and if the prayers conflicted with religious liberty laws.
“Community, civic, faith, and school leaders collaborated on hosting this community event at Baraboo High School and, as such, co-planned the program and selected the speakers,” she wrote. She did not address religion.
The foundation provided letters sent to the organization in response to its concerns from Baraboo City Attorney Emily Truman and attorney Michael Julka, the district’s legal counsel, but neither addressed the first event. Instead, they assured the group that future events on the issue would not include prayer.
Julka noted attorneys hadn’t looked into the “substantive components” of the foundation’s letter.
While religious topics did come up during discussions at the two following events in the series, held in late November and December, neither included prayers.