I don’t agree that often with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, so I like to note those occasions when I think they are dead on. Such is the case with Sandhya Bathija’s column today, in which she notes the extraordinary practice engaged in by the White House in advance of presidential rallies. It involves vetting the prayers:

Earlier this week, Dan Gilgoff at U.S. News and World Report reported that President Barack Obama has started a new tradition at some of his presidential events.

On some occasions, at least, it seems Obama’s opening act will be a prayer vetted by the White House.

Gilgoff told the story of Ryan Culp of Elkhart, Ind., who turned down a request by Obama to deliver a prayer during the presidential campaign because he is a conservative Republican and, Culp said, “didn’t want to be perceived to be a supporter of a Democratic campaign.” Culp was asked again now that Obama is in office and this time obliged.

The day before Culp was to give the prayer, he was required to call an aide at the White House and recite the prayer for approval. The aide told him the prayer was “beautiful.”

For the Fort Myers, Fla., town hall meeting, the White House vetted a prayer by James Bing, pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church, and in Phoenix, an administrator for the Tohono O’odham Nation delivered a prayer before Obama took the stage.

Gilgoff adds these details:

During Obama’s recent visit to Fort Myers, Fla., to promote his economic stimulus plan, a black Baptist preacher delivered a prayer that carefully avoided mentioning Jesus, lest he offend anyone in the audience. And at Obama’s appearance last week near Phoenix to unveil his mortgage bailout plan, an administrator for the Tohono O’odham Nation delivered the prayer, taking the unusual step of writing it down so he could E-mail it to the White House for vetting. American Indian prayers are typically improvised.

Interviews with former White House aides and official presidential archivists going back to the Carter administration turn up no evidence of similar programs, though some of Ronald Reagan’s events featured invocations from clergy from a variety of religious traditions. The Reagan White House appears to have received copies of the invocations after they were delivered, as opposed to before, according to Ronald Reagan Presidential Library archivist Lisa Jones.

I don’t know that I agree with AU’s Barry Lynn that such prayers are themselves out-of-bounds, but there is no question whatsoever that having them vetted by the White House is completely inappropriate, and that no one who is asked to pray at White House should agree to such vetting. No agency of government has any business “approving” the content of any prayer, and that goes as much or more for a White House occupied by a popular incumbent.

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