The caucus was created by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., in 2005, and now includes about 90 members of the House, nearly all Republicans, one U.S. senator and one paid staff member. [...] Like other congressional caucuses, several members kick in shares from their taxpayer-funded office accounts to cover the approximately $50,000 annual salary of the staff member, Amy Vitale, who tracks legislation, drafts letters and generally supports the work of the caucus. The Prayer Caucus also has an outside non-profit organization that supports its efforts, as are many other caucuses. The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation operates out of a Chesapeake, Va., building Forbes owns that also houses his campaign office. His wife, Shirley Forbes, is one of three unpaid directors of the foundation. The foundation has one paid staff member, executive director Lea Carawan, but operates entirely on private funds.
First up from the God Machine this week a look at the taxpayer-funded Congressional Prayer Caucus that may seem hard to explain in a country that honors the separation of church and state.
There are, to be sure, all kinds of congressional caucuses. Wikipedia has a list of them, and it totals 246. Some of the names are probably familiar to many Americans -- the Congressional Black Caucus, the Blue Dog Coalition, the Tea Party Caucus, etc. -- but many more are obscure. Ordinarily, most of these semi-formal groups of lawmakers keep a fairly low profile.
But this week, USA Today's Paul Singer highlighted the congressional caucus that exists to "defend the role of (mostly) Christian faith and prayer in the U.S. government."
As odd as this may seem, the Congressional Prayer Caucus, subsidized with public funds, occasionally plays a role akin to an activist group, working to "extend the reach of faith and prayer in public life." In practice, that may mean, as Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) explained, promoting legislation to reflect "American, Christian values," or its efforts may also include national outreach to local officials to "protect" their interpretation of "religious liberty."
The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, meanwhile, has a mission statement that says it intends to create a "movement" to "reverse" a trend that includes "negating the influence that the Christian faith had on establishing the principles upon which our liberties are secured."
As for whether the blurred lines between religion and government are legally problematic, to my knowledge, the constitutionality of the Congressional Prayer Caucus hasn't been tested. It's not clear who would even have standing to bring such a challenge, though it'd likely make for an interesting case.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* The Vatican clarifies: "Pope Francis’ encounter with Kim Davis last week in Washington, which was interpreted by many as a subtle intervention in the United States’ same-sex marriage debate, was part of a series of private meetings with dozens of guests and did not amount to an endorsement of her views, the Vatican said on Friday."
* On a related note, Kim Davis' attorney, the Liberty Counsel's Mat Staver, claimed last week that there was a 100,000-person prayer rally in Peru in support of his client. As it turns out, that wasn't true.
* Oklahoma will not defy a state Supreme Court ruling: "The Capitol Preservation Commission on Tuesday authorized a state agency to remove the Ten Commandments monument from the Capitol grounds to comply with a court order" (thanks to my colleague Laura Conaway for the heads-up).
* A quick reversal in a local Alabama county: "Decals stating 'Blessed are the peacemakers' are no longer on Houston County Sheriff's Office vehicles based on a recommendation by the county administrator."