Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt has reversed course and said he will boycott the 2014 Clark County Mayor and Civic Leaders Prayer Breakfast, scheduled for 7 a.m. Friday at the Hilton Vancouver Washington.
Earlier, Leavitt said he would honor his commitment to host the event despite controversy surrounding the keynote speaker, former Army Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin, who in interviews, speeches and writings has said that the war on terrorism is a Christian war against Satan and that followers of Islam are “under an obligation to destroy our Constitution.”
“The purpose of the prayer breakfast is to bring together people of many different faiths and religions to pray for, honor and encourage military personnel, public safety first responders, civic leaders and others who serve our community — and that is an effort that I do support,” Leavitt said in a news release issued by the city Wednesday afternoon.
“The vision of the breakfast is ‘Inspiring Clark County residents to honor, encourage and support each other.’ But it is apparent to me that the values and beliefs of the keynote speaker are not consistent with the original vision of this event,” Leavitt’s statement continued. “In fact, I’m certain that Lt. Gen. Boykin’s position on a number of social, political and religious issues does not at all reflect the values of acceptance, tolerance and compassion our community strives for.”
“I respect and commend the lieutenant general for his service to our country,” said Leavitt. “However, I can’t condone extremist values through my attendance and participation at the breakfast. Vancouver prides itself on being a welcoming community for all faiths, cultures and belief systems. Frankly, I’m stunned that the event planning committee, when given the option to correct a poor decision, chose to keep the invitation to Boykin. I encourage others, including the event sponsors, to carefully consider their attendance and support.”
The annual prayer breakfast is organized by a group of civic and religious organizations led by the Full Gospel Men’s Fellowship in America and also including the Clark County YMCA, the Christian Chamber Northwest and Serving Our Neighbors. The city of Vancouver does not sponsor or organize the event. The city’s press release also clarified that while Clark/Vancouver Television (CVTV) was hired by organizers to tape and broadcast the event, CVTV is not a sponsor.
On Tuesday, the event planning committee met to review its decision as controversy around Boykin revved up. The YMCA withdrew its support, according to Y chaplain Roger Button, but the group as a whole stuck with Boykin.
That group has not responded to repeated interview requests from The Columbian, but on Wednesday morning it released a statement emphasizing that Boykin was chosen to honor and inspire military veterans. It also said it had been in recent touch with Boykin to share the community’s “sensitivities”:
“For more than a decade, the Clark County Mayors’ and Civic Leaders’ Prayer Breakfast has served as an opportunity for residents, businesses and organizations to honor, thank and pray for our community leaders and those who serve and protect us — specifically, mayors, civic leaders, first responders and military personnel.
“As we prepared for the 2014 event, our planning committee decided to place a stronger emphasis on showing support for those who have served our country in harm’s way. During our planning, we learned about Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin (retired), who has had a distinguished 36-year career in the U.S. Army including overseeing intelligence during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our committee had direct connections with him as a result of his presentation a few years ago to the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship of America –National Convention. His warmly received message there recounted how his faith and prayer helped him endure the extreme conditions of war. Therefore, about seven months ago, we committed to have Mr. Boykin share his personal story at this year’s prayer breakfast.
“Over the past few days, we have received emails and calls expressing concern for our choice of Lt. Gen. Boykin. We appreciate the feedback and have reviewed those concerns with many people within and outside of our steering committee. We also spoke directly with Mr. Boykin about those sensitivities and the content of his remarks Friday, which will be focused on his personal faith while serving his country. As a result, we believe his remarks will serve as an inspiration as we honor, thank and pray for our community leaders and those who serve our country.”
This 13th annual breakfast was to be Leavitt’s turn as host. It’s not clear now who will host. Leavitt said that host duties pretty much amounts to introducing the other mayors.
Most Clark County mayors won’t be there. On Wednesday afternoon, several told The Columbian that — for reasons unrelated to the controversy — they never had been planning to go to the breakfast.
Mayor Sean Guard of Washougal emailed that he’ll be out of town for a family wedding.
Mayor Jim Irish of La Center said he’d already sent in his regrets because of a trip planned for today. But he added that he wished the planning committee had done its homework more carefully and avoided such a controversial figure.
“I don’t know how this came about,” he said, “but it’s not the way they used to do it.” He said the group should have found a military officer who was simply inspirational without making “controversial statements about Muslims. I don’t agree with that. I was looking forward to it, but now I’m guess I’m glad I’ll be out of town.”
Mayor Shane Bowman of Battle Ground said he would have gone to the breakfast, but wasn’t planning to because of a work commitment. He said he didn’t know much about the controversy about Boykin.
Mayor Scott Higgins of Camas, also a preacher at the Hockinson Church of Christ, said earlier this week that he was planning on going, but that didn’t mean he endorsed the speaker. Higgins did not respond to a follow-up call Wednesday afternoon.
Mayor Ron Onslow of Ridgefield is going. He said he helped run the area’s first prayer breakfast when the fraternal Jaycees put it on. But he also said he won’t stand for hateful talk.
“I’ve been involved in the Mayors Prayer Breakfast for years and I believe in it,” Onslow said. “(Boykin) served our country. I’m not aware much about his beliefs or his feelings, but I know the mission of the Mayors Prayer Breakfast. I will honor my commitment to attend. However, if (Boykin) deviates from the mission of the prayer breakfast and gets into places where he shouldn’t be, I will excuse myself.”
Grover Laseke of Woodland is going. He said he agreed with Higgins’ earlier comments — that it’s important to meet people even when you don’t agree with them. He said it’s “unfortunate” that the planning committee chose Boykin but that he will “go pray and listen. I go to these things because I believe they’re an opportunity to pray for our community.” He said he would pray for Boykin “to understand where he belongs and what he should be doing.”
Mayor Jeff Carothers of Yacolt said he’s still thinking about it.
Also, within an hour of Leavitt’s announcement, the only two members of the Vancouver City Council who’d been planning to go, Larry Smith and Anne McEnerny-Ogle, changed their minds, too. Smith, a retired Army colonel, said he has “the most regard in the world for a retired lieutenant general. I’m sure when he was on active duty, he didn’t make those types of comments.”
Smith said he is disappointed that planners “didn’t vet out the speaker. It’s not the event; I think it’s a wonderful event. I’d prefer to see speakers from the local area. We have lots of volunteers and heroes in the area. I just don’t feel good about attending this year’s event because it’s sort of endorsing the speaker since I’m an elected official.
“I certainly believe in freedom of speech, but there’s got to be accountability about what you say and who you say it to,” Smith said.
Previously, Vancouver councilman Jack Burkman had said that he’s been growing uncomfortable in recent years with the very idea of political leaders making public appearances at a prayer breakfast. In 2005, Mayor Kitty Piercy of Eugene skipped a prayer breakfast simply because it “blurs the line between the church and state,” she said at the time.
Dr. Khalid Khan, spokesman for the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington in Hazel Dell, has told The Columbian that he has assumed the event is a public one, sponsored by the mayor’s office.
Boykin and Muslims
Boykin has described Islam as “a totalitarian way of life” and said it should not be protected under the First Amendment. He has called for “No mosques in America.” He has called Europe “hopelessly lost” because of the fast-growing Muslim population there, and said that “Americans need to have more babies and populate this country with red-blooded patriotic Americans.” 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, and the executive director of the Washington state chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, based in Seattle, co-signed a letter to Leavitt protesting “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 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.
“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 Khan of the Hazel Dell mosque. 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.
Leavitt said that he’d received plenty of email about this issue, much of it anti-Boykin. For example, this came to Leavitt — and The Columbian — from Dennis Cole, the associate priest at St. Luke’s Espiscopal Church:
“Although this country endorses freedom of speech and freedom of religion such that Mr. Boykin can believe what he wants, unless you or the city of Vancouver endorses such ignorance and bigotry as he espouses, I hope you will not welcome or support his words at a public event that is affiliated with your office. And to couch his thoughts in prayer to the God who has no favorites is more than offensive, it is dangerous to the very peace we are working for,” Cole wrote.
“I am proud to be a part of an interfaith group that meets monthly to learn from and celebrate with representatives of many faiths and traditions worshipping in Clark County. Individually and together we work every day to enhance our own ability to be peacemakers here where we live,” Cole wrote. “We consider you as also striving to that end and hope you see Mr. Boykin as working in many ways against our view of community.”.
The host duties rotate among the mayors of Clark County’s cities. This year was Leavitt’s turn.
The city of Vancouver does not sponsor or organize the event. The main organizer is the local chapter of the Full Gospel Men’s Fellowship in America.
The city’s press release also clarified that while Clark/Vancouver Television (CVTV) was hired by organizers to tape and broadcast the event, CVTV is not a sponsor.