ABC News' Arlette Saenz (@arlettesaenz) reports:
A prayer event initiated by Texas Governor Rick Perry will take place tomorrow in Houston, Texas, but the religious revival is mired in controversy concerning exclusion of non-Christian religions, controversial figures, and the question whether a public official is violating the separation of church and state by hosting a religious event.
Perry, a self described “man of faith” and Methodist who attends an evangelical mega-church in Austin, laid out plans for the event called “The Response,” a gathering of Christians dedicating a day to prayer and fasting for a “nation in crisis,” which will take place in Reliant Stadium, a football arena home to the Houston Texans.
“As an elected leader, I’m all too aware of government’s limitations when it comes to fixing things that are spiritual in nature. That’s where prayer comes in, and we need it more than ever,” Perry says in a video on The Response’s website. “With the economy in trouble, communities in crisis and people adrift in a sea of moral relativism, we need god’s help.”
Perry, who many speculate will run for president this election season, has insisted the event holds no ulterior political motives.
“The event’s not political. The event’s not about promoting an organization, it’s not some fancy promotional event. It’s going to be simple. This is simply people coming, calling out to God,” Perry told a Christian radio show hosted by Tony Perkins and Tim Wildmon last month.
But in the weeks leading up to the event, many have stepped forward with concern.
Approximately 8,000 people plan on attending the event in a stadium that seats 70,000. Perry extended an invitation to his fellow governors to attend, but none have committed, including Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, who once said he would attend but is now stepping back from the event.
Last month, Perry faced a lawsuit from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a church/state watchdog group, attempting to bar him from participating in the event.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation argued “nonbelievers who support the free exercise of religion, but strongly oppose the governmental establishment and endorsement of religion, including prayer and fasting, which are not only an ineffectual use of time and government resources, but which can be harmful or counterproductive as a substitute for reasoned action.”
But a district judge threw out the case, siding with Perry based on precedent to allow government officials to hold prayer events, citing President Obama and the National Prayer Breakfast.
Though he conceptualized the event, Perry will play a minor role on Saturday. He is expected to read scripture and lead the group in prayer. Many religious figures from across the country will attend the event, including Sam Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.
But some controversial figures will be leading and participating in the event, including Dr. James Dobson, founder and former president of Focus on the Family. In the past, Dobson has likened embryonic stem cell research to operations performed by the Nazis during WWII and criticized the LGBT community, saying homosexuality could lead to incest and beastiality.
Other divisive figures attending the event are San Antonio mega-church pastor John Hagee, who has espoused anti-Catholic views, and John Benefiel, head of the Heartland Apostolic Prayer Network, who has called the State of Liberty a “demonic idol.”
The event is paid for by the American Family Association, whose website describes the group as being on the “frontlines of the culture war.” The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated the American Family Association as an anti-gay group.
Alternative rallies are planned in the Houston area throughout the weekend. The LGBT Political Caucus will hold a rally to “recognize and honor the many contributions made by members of the LGBT community to the quality of life in Houston, Harris County, Texas and the nation, and will also be attended by Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is openly gay.
The Texas ACLU and Americans United will host a “Family, Faith and Freedom” event to draw attention to the exclusive nature of Perry’s prayer rally.
“Gov. Perry’s decision to sponsor a ‘Christians-only’ prayer rally is bad enough. That he turned to an array of intolerant religious extremists to put it on for him is even worse,” Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said. “This event unites us in our conviction that government should have no favorite theology and that it must always strive to ensure that all citizens – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and others – are full and equal partners in the public square.”