ACLU files records request on Gov. Haley’s involvement in Saturday’s prayer rally

Gov. Nikki Haley

Gov. Nikki Haley’s involvement in a massive prayer rally Saturday in North Charleston has drawn the interest of the American Civil Liberties Union, which wants an accounting of whether taxpayer money is being used to promote religion.

The ACLU of South Carolina has filed an open records request seeking a rundown of taxpayer dollars and resources being used to promote “The Response: A Call to Prayer for our Nation” at the North Charleston Coliseum.

Haley is a supporter of the event and will be one of its leadoff speakers.

Up to 10,000 people are expected to attend the six-hour Christian-themed rally.

The ACLU’s question relates to whether Haley’s involvement, and that of other public resources, represents mixing taxpayer money with religious advocacy.

“The public has a right to know whether any public funds are being expended and how much it costs for our governor to participate in this prayer event,” said Susan Dunn, legal director for the ACLU of South Carolina.

“Prayer is an act of worship, not an act of governance,” added Victoria Middleton, executive director of the South Carolina ACLU.

The American Renewal Project, a California-based political group that advocates for increased influence of evangelicals in politics, is sponsoring the rally. It will be a collective show of faith from those who say America’s spiritual compass is off course.

Haley agreed to take part after a group of pastors visited her in Columbia. She went on to appear in a promotional video for it that was shot on state property, and issued an open invitation printed on governor’s office letterhead.

“In unity, we will pray for the strength and grace that we can only find when we turn our hearts and minds to the Lord. God bless,” it read.

While the Response is not billed as being exclusive to Christians, it’s promotional material targets them and omits references to other beliefs. The group’s web page states this “is the time for Christians to come together to call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom we so richly enjoy.”

Haley’s staff responded to an inquiry about the ACLU Freedom of Information Act request by pointing out it is Haley’s right to express her faith.

“Being that the ACLU purportedly exists to protect Americans’ civil liberties, one would think they’d be more supportive of Gov. Haley choosing to exercise her freedom of religion,” spokeswoman Chaney Adams said.

Middleton said that one of the cornerstones of the ACLU’s work is ensuring that the First Amendment is upheld and to “safeguard against government promotion of, or interference with, religious practice.”

Haley will have one of the leadoff speaking roles Saturday. There will be sermons, music and testimonials. The rally begins at 10 a.m. and runs until 4 p.m.

Expectations for a full house are so high that North Charleston officials on Thursday issued a “parking alert” for the event, asking participants to arrive early and to consider car-pooling.

Attendance is free and open to anyone, though people are asked to first register on the group’s website.

Previous Response gatherings have been held in other states, including Texas and Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry also participated.

Jindal and Perry were similarly criticized for their involvement in the prayer gatherings. Students at Louisiana State University protested the event being held on campus and circulated petitions. Jindal will be at Saturday’s rally in North Charleston ahead of his expected presidential bid.

The ACLU is seeking a response within the next 15 days.

It is not the only group that has challenged Haley’s involvement. Atheist groups have also questioned her role, saying it mixes church and state.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.