Capitol Anticlimax 

Both sides claim victory, then go home

Proving the truth behind the adage that "success has many fathers," both atheists and organizers of the National Day of Prayer (NDoP) claimed triumph after last Thursday's contending rallies on the Idaho Statehouse steps. After a last-minute district court decision allowed Idaho Atheists, Inc. (IAI) to hold their "Idaho Day of Equality" event on the disputed south steps, demonstrators from both camps were terse, though peaceful through the one-hour rallies.

Defying explicit biblical injunctions against lengthy, conspicuous public prayer (Matt. 6:5-7), NDoP mustered a panoply of officialdom in their favor, from former Gov. Phil Batt to fully uniformed members of the Idaho National Guard, the mayors of Boise and Nampa, and the star of the show, embattled Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. With the atmosphere a combination tent revival and Fourth of July parade, the rally drew clumps of couples, families and congregants, and easily outdid the atheists in terms of crowd size and decibel level. Nevertheless, speakers made several pointed comments about their rivals on the front steps, including Batt joking that the rain was falling more heavily on the Capitol south side.

Following the event, pastor and religious activist Bryan Fischer of the Community Church of the Valley posted comments on his "Keep the Commandments" Web site, denouncing "the childish antics of this fringe group." Fischer sarcastically thanked the atheists "for serving as the Publicity Committee" for the NDoP, claiming that the lawsuit generated "the largest crowd ever" for the event. He also drew an analogy between the atheists' action and "groups like the Aryan Nations ... reserving the capitol steps on Martin Luther King Day."

By contrast, a large part of IAI's claim to victory rested on the range of groups represented, which included the Humanists of Idaho, the Interfaith Religious Leaders' Network, the Interfaith Alliance of Idaho, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). A recuperating but exhilarated Susan Harrington, the IAI leader who precipitated the controversy and led the legal charge, expressed surprise at the large number of individuals-up to 75-who gathered for Idaho Day of Equality. In Harrington's view the event marked an historic opportunity for atheists to go public and "transition out of this era of discrimination by our government officials, to break the cycle of oppression against us."

Despite her event's sparser attendance and drier, intellectual rhetoric-somewhere between a Ph.D. dissertation defense and political rally-Harrington reported receiving scores of private e-mails from closeted atheists thanking her for taking a stand, as well as some harassing telephone hang-ups. As to the next step for the group, Harrington commented, "This was one Idaho Day of Equality but we have to work for 365 days of equality, to exercise constant vigilance, to constantly remind our government officials and the public that we exist and deserve respect."

In any case, all sides agree that the National Day of Prayer has firmly reserved the front Capitol steps for every single first Thursday of May until the year 2014.

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