Dana Jennings, wife of Rep. Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, bows her head in prayer during a Keep Faith in America rally on the steps of the Wyoming Supreme Court Building on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018, in Cheyenne. Organized nationally by the D.C.-based Congressional Prayer Caucus, the rally was held to encourage open religion and prayer in government settings. Jacob Byk/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Dozens of legislators and elected officials, including Gov. Matt Mead, gathered Tuesday on the front steps of the Wyoming Supreme Court Building to celebrate “faith and civility” in America.

The rally, organized by the Washington, D.C.-based Congressional Prayer Caucus in collaboration with local religious institutions, took place in 30 states and featured a Facebook Live event streaming national activities.

Other officials in attendance included Secretary of State Ed Murray and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow.

Tuesday’s activities were chosen in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, passed by the Virginia General Assembly on Jan. 16, 1786. The statute is a milestone for religious freedom, separation of church and state, and First Amendment rights.

“The statute was so important that Jefferson listed only three things on his epitaph,” Congressional Prayer Caucus’ Wyoming representative, Rep. Nathan Winters, R-Thermopolis, said. “That he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the founder of the University of Virginia. That’s how near and dear he held it.”

Winters said the ultimate purpose of the 30-minute rally was to reduce animosity in today’s dialogue about faith in America.

“Civility is something that is very, very powerful, and faith in America has been the most effective source of civility in conversation,” Winters said. “It is a very positive message.”

The Congressional Prayer Caucus was established in 2005 to “build a network of like-minded government leaders who are committed to prayer and action,” according to its website. The organization expanded to Wyoming in December 2017.

The event was nondenominationally driven, but primarily attracted Christian organizations and community members. Hosting the rally in Wyoming for the first time, organizers invited statewide elected officials and legislators.

They also invited local pastors to lead prayer. Pastor Kenny White with Cheyenne Hills Church called for a blessing on the state of Wyoming, and thanked God for the state’s elected officials.

In a state where roughly 70 percent of adults identify as Christian, the rally was well-received by many. Others, though, took issue with the rally being held in honor of the Virginia Statute.

Mary Ludwig, history instructor at Laramie County Community College, said the Constitution unequivocally guarantees the right to practice faith, but says separation of church and state is equally important.

“I think trying to use Thomas Jefferson’s statute to put religion back in government is a deliberate misreading of the statute,” Ludwig said. “What a lot of people are now doing is saying it is their religious right to discriminate or their religious right to force their religious beliefs on others.”

The statute made it so Virginians were no longer taxed to pay for the Anglican Church and gave equal rights to citizens, regardless of their religion, she said.

Rep. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle, said hosting the rally before the legislative session encourages courtesy in Wyoming politics.

“It is important that all Americans, and Wyomingites, be able to utilize their constitutional rights, and this is one of them guaranteed,” Steinmetz said. “Another very important aspect is civility and unity, especially coming into this legislative session.”

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