Since the late 1980s, local Christians and their pastors have gathered in front of government buildings on the first Thursday in May to openly display their faith as part of a National Day of Prayer.
This year was no different, as participants gathered once again in front of the SLO County Courthouse for speeches, music, and prayers.
“These are people that are making decisions that affect the lives of the whole community, and we pray in this place for God’s wisdom and God’s guidance for those who lead us,” said Mike Sparrow, lead pastor of Agape Church in SLO and one of the event’s organizers.
This year, however, the crowd in front of the courthouse was flanked by three individuals displaying a large, rainbow-colored banner with a different kind of message.
“Bigotry disguised as ‘religious liberty’… is still bigotry!” it read.
The tableau outside the courthouse reflected a nation that continues to grapple with deep religious and political divisions. Those divisions have become even more apparent following the election of President Donald Trump. To mark the 2017 National Day of Prayer, Trump signed an executive order to promote “free speech and religious liberty.” It was that executive order that prompted the banner, said Los Osos resident Ellen Sturtz.
“We wanted to remind people that, sometimes, the banner of religious liberty is used as a license to discriminate,” Sturtz said. “I think it’s important, particularly with this administration, that we remind people [and] put faces to those who are potentially affected by these administrative actions.”
The Trump administration faced a wave of criticism from LGBTQ rights groups in February after an early draft of the executive order leaked to the public. That version of the order contained sweeping exemptions for individuals and organizations that object to issues such as gay marriage and trans identity. Some people worried that those exemptions would allow for the wholesale discrimination of LGBTQ individuals.
The executive order signed May 4 cut out much of the language and provisions in the leaked draft, and it focuses instead on amending regulations requiring employers to provide birth control for employee health care plans and rolls back penalties for pastors and churches endorsing political candidates.
“It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom,” the executive order states.
At the local event, Sparrow said he hadn’t yet read the newly signed order, but indicated that there was a genuine concern among Christians about the issue of religious freedom and liberties.
“I think we’ve seen in the last election that there was maybe a kind of backlash from the Christian community, believing that our rights and our right to worship, or our religious liberties, were being ignored or pushed back or suppressed for the sake of other people’s liberties,” Sparrow said. “I think churches in general, and pastors in general, would say that we are not trying to suppress other people’s rights. We just want the ability to worship freely and hold First Amendment meetings without being persecuted for that.”
Sturtz said that while the executive order was “watered down” from the leaked draft, she still believed it was destructive to LGBTQ rights. Sturtz said that she did speak with some of the event attendees, and that the conversations were largely respectful and productive.
“I think most people have good hearts and don’t know that it’s used for discrimination,” she said, later adding, “the majority of people who spoke with me believed that this shouldn’t be used to discriminate.”
While the group remained respectful and without confrontation, Sparrow said he had mixed feelings about the mini-protest at the National Day of Prayer Event.
“I don’t know how they would feel if Christians put up banners in the middle of the gay pride event in Mission Plaza,” he said. “I feel that some of those hostilities are what we are trying to diminish. I feel like the spirit of our gathering is more to bless the city and pray for the city and not to come and pick fights.”