NEW YORK-Christian conservatives are condemning New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to bar clergy-led prayer at Sunday's 10th anniversary commemoration of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, calling the program an insult. Bloomberg has defended his decision, saying it would be impossible to include everyone who would like to participate. The mayor's staff also said the annual event is meant to focus on the victims' families and has never included clergy invocations.
Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center who researches religious liberty, said he worries that Bloomberg might have jettisoned clergy prayer to avoid any controversy about Islam, since he would have to include a Muslim representative in the program. Haynes and others insist they would welcome a Muslim prayer leader to the group, along with a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister and a Jewish rabbi. But with increasingly vocal activists who condemn Islam as a violent religion, Haynes said Bloomberg was in a "a no-win situation."
Several New York religious leaders say they understand the mayor's position, pointing to the multitude of religious events surrounding the anniversary as evidence that faith isn't being overlooked.
"I just think a decision was made to give priority to the families. If this means more families will be attending, I think all of us can accept that," said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis.
The mayor's critics, including the Catholic League and the Family Research Council, argue the program reflects prejudice against religion and ignores the central role religious groups played in the city's response to the attacks. For weeks after 9/11, Trinity Wall Street, an Episcopal congregation near Ground Zero, allowed rescue workers to operate from its chapel. Faith-based service agencies volunteered for a range of duties, from feeding recovery teams to counseling families. Clergy organized interfaith services for the city, most prominently at Yankee Stadium.
"Nobody was turning religious leaders away from the scene 10 years ago. Why are they being banned from the 10th anniversary?" asked Richard Land, who leads the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. "The only answer, pure and simple, is anti-religious prejudice."
The Washington-based Family Research Council has posted a petition demanding Bloomberg reverse his decision, saying that to ban prayer from the service would be to "cross yet another threshold of spiritual decline." At the end of last week, the group reported more than 50,000 signatures.
Despite the pressure to add prayer to the program, Bloomberg has refused to change his mind. Evelyn Erskine, a Bloomberg spokeswoman, said the program was designed in coordination with victims' families.
"Rather than have disagreements over which religious leaders participate, we would like to keep the focus of our commemoration ceremony on the family members of those who died," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.