OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Kevin Stitt is coming under fire for planned public appearance at a Tulsa church where he’s supposed to talk to a men’s group about serving God.
Richard Jayne, a staff attorney with the nonprofit Freedom from Religion Foundation, said the Republican governor’s planned Sept. 22 appearance raises serious constitutional concerns. He said it also marks the second time in nine months that the national nonprofit has warned the Republican against using his secular job to promote religion.
The Madison, Wisconsin-based group, which has more than 30,000 nonreligious members, focuses on upholding the constitutional separation between church and state.
Jayne said Stitt can preach or pray as much as he wants as a private citizen, but can’t use his elected post to promote religion.
“We are telling Gov. Stitt, as we tell all pious politicians: ‘Get off your knees and get to work,’” said co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor in a statement. “It’s not OK in Oklahoma or any other state for public officials to misuse their office to promote religion.”
Jayne said an Oklahoma member of the nonprofit complained after he saw a Facebook post from Guts Church advertising the event. The message promised the governor would speak about “topics you care about… things like leadership, serving God, raising children and much more!” at the free event, the nonprofit group reported.
On its website, the church notes that every year “Pastor Bill” hosts men’s events with “strong influential speakers.” Other speakers have included former University of Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops and Navy Seal Jeff Bramstedt, the church said.
“As Gov. Stitt does not have a background in politics, we’re hoping this will be a learning moment for him, and he’ll focus on the secular Oath of Office he took,” Jayne said.
In an email, Stitt spokeswoman Baylee Lakey said it has been a “remarkably productive administration.”
"And it is because we have a governor who works tirelessly, casts vision, and values people no matter their background or place of worship,” she said. “One of the first events he hosted at the governor's mansion was a lunch for members of the Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma, which represents individuals across 75 faith traditions. The governor welcomes all opportunities to speak and listen to Oklahomans, in their communities, no matter their background or religious affiliation."
But Jayne said he’s concerned. He said his group has already warned Stitt about hosting an inaugural prayer service where a pastor from Guts Church reportedly delivered a prayer and sermon.
“If he continues to use his position to promote religion, we would certainly consider other legal options,” Jayne said. That could include a lawsuit.
Republican Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, though, said Tuesday that there are no constitutional issues with a governor addressing a church group and talking about his religious beliefs.
“Just because you’re elected to public office doesn’t mean that you forfeit your rights to practice your religious beliefs under the First Amendment,” he said. “I think that’s nonsense.”
Jayne said his group also contacted former Republican Gov. Mary Fallin twice during her eight-year term. They sent Fallin a letter in 2016 urging her to rescind her “Oilfield Prayer Day” proclamation, and also signed a statement opposing an adoption and foster care bill she supported.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.