For 20 years, the annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast in Ocean City has been a generally quiet affair. But this year the event's sponsors invited as guest speaker a former high-ranking Pentagon official notorious for his characterization of Muslims as idol-worshipers and terrorist fanatics. Ocean City's mayor and council members received hundreds of emails urging them to shun the event, scheduled for this morning, rather than appear to endorse such views. But they need to go further, by clearly stating that religious bigotry has no place in a family resort town whose economy depends on making people of all races, religions and creeds feel welcome.
Army Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, who retired in 2007 to become a speaker on the evangelical Christian lecture circuit, is certainly no stranger to controversy. In 2003 he was reprimanded byPresident George W. Bushfor violating numerous Army regulations after he described a 1993 battle against a Muslim warlord in Somalia by saying, "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." As president, Mr. Bush had taken great pains to emphasize that the U.S. was at war not with Islam, but with terrorists who had perverted its tenets. General Boykin's comment played right into the hands of enemy propagandists eager to paint America's war against terror as a war against Muslims.
General Boykin's extremist views also got him into trouble when the Army discovered he was giving unauthorized speeches at evangelical church functions while serving as deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and war-fighting. Yet that didn't stop him from later suggesting that Muslims didn't deserve protection under the First Amendment's freedom of religion clause because "those following the dictates of the Koran have an obligation to destroy our constitution and replace it with Sharia law." He once even accused President Obama of setting up a "Hitler-style" militia to force socialism on America, whatever that means.
It should have been obvious to the organizers of the prayer breakfast that Mr. Boykin's appearance in Ocean City would be a source of contention. Though the event has no official connection to the town and the mayor's presence there is purely ceremonial, it cannot have escaped the event's sponsors that the mere fact they had invited such a controversial figure would reflect poorly on the town. That's not only because Mr. Boykin's views are repugnant but because his high-profile presence among Ocean City's officials virtually guaranteed they would be called on to repudiate his ideas, lest they give the impression they agree with his paranoid world-view.
Make no mistake: This is not an issue of freedom of speech or of any of the constitution's protections for religious expression that Mr. Boykin seems so eager to deny to those who don't share his own Christian faith. Mr. Boykin has every right to say whatever outrageously offensive and hateful things about Muslims pop into his head, and the private organizers of an Ocean City prayer breakfast have the right to invite him to speak. Likewise, Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan and the town council can attend the breakfast if they so choose. What they cannot do, however, is pretend that their presence there won't reflect badly on them and the resort town they lead. They need to make clear whether they agree with Mr. Boykin's views, they need to do it immediately and they need to do it publicly.