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Aug. 18, 2022

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Prayer breakfast planners to keep controversial speaker

Retired lieutenant general labeled 'anti-Muslim bigot' by critics

By , Columbian staff writer

A planning committee on Tuesday voted to retain a controversial former Pentagon official and Christian conservative as keynote speaker for Friday’s Clark County Mayors’ & Civil Leaders’ Prayer Breakfast.

But the Clark County Family YMCA, one of the event’s sponsors, voted against keeping former Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin as keynote speaker, according to Roger Button, a YMCA chaplain and a member of the committee.

The truth is that the organizing committee knew little about Boykin at first, Button said, other than that he was a “great keynote speaker” who’d done a “wonderful job” at the national convention of the Full Gospel Men’s Fellowship in America. A local chapter of the Full Gospel Men’s Fellowship is the event planning partner who suggested bringing Boykin to Clark County for this 13th annual local prayer breakfast, set for 7 a.m. Friday at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.

“We were looking to honor our military veterans and first responders and he sounded like a good fit,” Button said. “We really didn’t look into it.”

Button said the Y has now decided that Boykin is too divisive. In a statement, the Y said:

“The purpose of the mayor’s prayer breakfast is to pray for, encourage and uplift our civic leaders, first responders and those that serve and protect our community. It is meant to be an uplifting event, one in which we call on the risen Christ to bless our leaders. Originally we had asked our keynote to speak based on his Christian testimony. In recent days statements made by the speaker have come to our attention that detract from the purpose and mission of the prayer breakfast. Therefore the YMCA does not support bringing this speaker to the Clark County Mayors’ & Civic Leaders’ Prayer Breakfast.”

But the overall event committee stuck with Boykin as keynote speaker, Button said. Event co-chair and media coordinator James Autry did not respond to repeated interview requests from The Columbian on Monday and Tuesday.

Comments on Islam

Word started spreading over the weekend about Boykin’s reputation as a Christian conservative firebrand who has garnered negative press and protests from civil liberties groups for his remarks about Islam — and a wide range of other topics — going back over a decade.

In various interviews, speeches and writings, Boykin has said that the war on terrorism is a Christian war against Satan. He has called Islam is “a totalitarian way of life. It should not be protected under the First Amendment.” He has said followers of Islam are “under an obligation to destroy our Constitution.” He has called for “No mosques in America.” And he has said that President Barack Obama’s “identity is more with Islam” than with Christianity.

On Tuesday a trustee of the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington, based in Hazel Dell, and the executive director of the Washington state chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, based in Seattle, co-signed a letter to Vancouver Mayor Timothy Leavitt that protested “anti-Muslim bigot” Boykin’s invitation to speak at the prayer breakfast.

The letter calls Boykin’s statements “outlandishly inaccurate and inflammatory” and “dangerous and revisionist, appealing to those in our society who wish to repeat patterns of discrimination and divide America across religious and ethnic lines.” It asks Leavitt, who was tapped to act as the prayer breakfast’s host, to see that Boykin is dropped as speaker. It notes that Boykin canceled a 2012 appearance at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point after a similar controversy erupted.

On Monday, Leavitt told The Columbian he had not been familiar with Boykin, but he was finding “intolerance” in the retired lieutenant general’s public statements. He said he had not planned to stick around for Boykin’s speech, but now is considering speaking out more forcefully during his own preliminary remarks. He also said he’d reached out to a member of the prayer breakfast planning committee to ask how Boykin was chosen and “if the committee knew that this individual was as controversial as he is.”

Apparently not, according to Button. Speaking only for the YMCA, he added: “The YMCA is here for all. We’re here for the entire community. We aren’t trying to be divisive. We are a Christian organization, so we call upon Christ, but we are not into discrimination in any way, shape or form. My job is to show the love of Christ, not the wrath of God.”

Proudly Clark County

The letter from local Muslims to Leavitt says in part: “Our mosque in Hazel Dell and its attendees are proud members of the larger Clark County community. Our mosque is attended by doctors and surgeons who save lives every day with the surgeries they perform, and among us also (are) Red Cross volunteers who helped after Hurricane Katrina. Among other members of our mosque are university professors, public school teachers, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, social workers, and many others who, every day, are living out the true teachings of Islam, to serve God by serving humankind.

“There are thousands of American Muslims who proudly call Clark County their home. Those residents who have demonstrated loyalty to your county deserve to hear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them, and that Americans won’t stand for Mr. Boykin’s comments.”

There are fewer than 2,000 Muslims in Clark County, according to Dr. Khalid Khan, a trustee of the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington. It’s estimated that there are between 2.35 million and 8 million in the United States. As many as 20,000 serve in the U.S. armed forces.

‘Quasi’ public?

Boykin will speak Friday morning before an expected audience of as many as 900 local politicians, religious leaders and others. The event is privately organized and paid for, but some have expressed discomfort nonetheless that it seems to be a “quasi” public event — or were under the impression that it is, in fact, a public endorsement of religion.

Khan was surprised to learn that the breakfast isn’t a public event sponsored by the city of Vancouver.

“Why would the mayor or his office actually select a person like that?” he said at first. “I believe in free speech, but for a prayer breakfast where there’s supposed to be a bridging of differences and building more understanding, it seems inconsistent.”

City Councilman Jack Burkman said he’s been growing uncomfortable with the event for years, and had already planned to skip this year. The selection of Boykin only reinforced his decision, he said.

“I’ve gone to some of these in the past,” he said, “but I’ve had increasing concerns with government’s active participation in very strong faith-based activities. I think it raises a lot of questions.”

It’s a strongly Christian event, he said, “and that’s great.” But, politicians attending a prayer breakfast as politicians isn’t too different from politicians attending church as politicians, he said. “In many ways (the prayer breakfast is) a service. A church service. That’s what I’m not comfortable with. Elected officials don’t go to church and say, ‘I’m here as a council member.’ “

He wasn’t familiar with Boykin, he said, until he read Tuesday’s Columbian. Then he started looking on the Internet.

“Wow, how did they make that decision?” he marveled. “It’s not new information. Boykin has been getting a lot of negative publicity for quite some time. This is a clear signal to me not to attend this event.”

Mayor Scott Higgins of Camas, who is also a pastor, said he is used to attending meetings and events where he doesn’t agree with many things he hears. He still plans to go, he said, but that doesn’t mean he endorses the speaker.

Vancouver city Councilor Alishia Topper posted on Facebook: “I’m in New York this Friday, but if I were home I would not attend this year’s prayer breakfast because of the keynote speaker. I do not support hate and am shocked the event organizers chose such a polarizing guest speaker. Organizers should reconsider their invitation and event sponsors should think about how sponsoring this event will make their business look.”

In April 2004, mayors in Washington County, Ore., pulled out of a prayer breakfast en masse after its organizers, the Beaverton-Tigard Chapter of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship and Concerned Citizens, disinvited the president of a local mosque association from sitting on the breakfast dais and offering a closing prayer. He would be allowed to sit in the audience but not offer a prayer, the group decided. In the end the event was canceled.

In 2005, then-Mayor Kitty Piercy of Eugene, Ore., cited more general reasons, similar to Burkman’s, for skipping the local prayer breakfast.

“I just don’t want my office to be used in support of one religious perspective,” Piercy told The Oregonian at the time — underlining Khan’s understandable confusion that the Clark County breakfast is a government event.

“When you label something by a government title, it indicates it is hosted by the government. It clearly blurs the line between church and state,” Piercy said.

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