Critics question Haley promoting prayer rally aimed at evangelicals

S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley

Gov. Nikki Haley is set to headline a massive Christian-themed prayer rally at the North Charleston Coliseum next month that supporters say will bring attention to a nation in crisis.

But detractors say the governor’s dual role in promoting and speaking at the event pushes her toward the delicate line dividing church and state.

Up to 10,000 people are expected to attend The Response: a call to prayer for our nation, on June 13.

Similar rallies have been hosted previously by two of Haley’s closest political allies — Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.

Both Republicans are part of the 2016 presidential mix and their appearances lent a political veneer — conservatives courting evangelical voters — to gatherings that resembled church services, featuring testimonials, shows of support toward the heavens and contemporary Christian praise music.

Haley agreed to take part in the upcoming event after a group of pastors visited her in Columbia.

She signed on because “faith has always been a source of strength for the governor and her entire family,” her press office said, adding that Haley is inviting South Carolinians “of all backgrounds and faiths to join her.”

Haley was born and raised in a Sikh family but later converted, joining her Methodist husband.

Critics, though, question the appropriateness of the governor appearing in a Response video promoting an event that, while not billed as exclusive to Christians, 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 also issued an open invitation to the gathering written on her official governor’s office letterhead, not as a private citizen.

“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.

Amy Monsky of the group Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry said Haley’s involvement amounts to an endorsement, “promoting one religion over another.”

“This event of organizing a prayer is not the business for the governor,” Monsky said.

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.

Others who objected included the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

College of Charleston religious studies professor Louise M. Doire said issues surrounding delivery of faith messages can be tricky for politicians, though participation in such an event doesn’t necessarily violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.

She said Haley’s participation in The Response isn’t openly “objectionable at face value.”

“After all,” she continued, “politicians at all levels of government pray and worship in public spaces and their right to do so is protected under the law.”

But having made that point, Doire said that while participants at the Response may pray and call upon God “with one voice, one heart, and a unified desire,” as their promotional material states, “the intention becomes problematic when that one voice, one heart and one desire are projected onto all Americans especially those who are not Christian,” she said.

Attendance at the North Charleston event is free of charge but those interested are being asked to first register on the group’s website http://theresponsesc.com/

Cynthia Roldan contributed to this report. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.