A Wisconsin-based group that champions the separation of church and state is evaluating Augusta’s use of city resources to promote and plan monthly prayer breakfasts.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation recently filed a request under the Georgia Open Records Act to inspect all city financial records and correspondence pertaining to the monthly breakfasts held this year.
The breakfasts were established by Mayor Deke Copenhaver shortly after he took office in December 2005 as a way to promote unity, and according to the mayor, one has been held every month since.
According to the city’s response to the open-records request, which was obtained by The Chronicle, the only expense of taxpayer resources on this year’s prayer breakfasts took the form of e-mails sent by Copenhaver’s executive assistant, Karyn Nixon, to arrange the host churches and to invite and confirm guests, and in the city time spent by Nixon, Copenhaver and to a lesser extent Augusta Commission member Matt Aitken attending them.
According to the response, Nixon sent or received 128 e-mails between Nov. 29 and June 12 to arrange the host church for each breakfast and invite guests.
Starting in January, the breakfasts were held at Aldersgate United Methodist, Hudson Memorial CME, St. Mary on the Hill, St. Paul Missionary Baptist and First Baptist churches, with the church responsible for the breakfast, according to the response.
Asked to comment, Copenhaver said only that the foundation has filed no suit against the city and that the law department “has responded in the appropriate manner.”
City general counsel Andrew MacKenzie said his office was reviewing a large body of case law related to challenges to the establishment clause of the Constitution to prepare a response to concerns raised by the foundation in a letter accompanying the open-records request.
“The government’s not disputing (Nixon’s) involvement,” MacKenzie said.
Rebecca Markert, an attorney for the foundation, said she had just completed a review of Augusta’s response Friday and was drafting an additional letter to the city “pointing out inappropriate and problematic instances” she says she found.
The group, which has an Augusta complainant whom Markert would not identify, routinely sues governments around the country over their religious activities.
Markert said it was “problematic” that an elected official, Copenhaver, initiated the breakfasts and that Nixon spent “a lot of time” setting them up.
“As a city employee, she shouldn’t be putting together a religious event like this,” Markert said.
The nonprofit foundation’s members are mostly atheists and agnostics, and it has two distinct purposes: to promote the constitutional principle of separation of church and state and to educate the public on matters relating to “nontheism,” the absence of a belief in God, she said.