Protesters are pressuring Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan to shun a prayer breakfast that features a former high-ranking Army officer who has made anti-Muslim remarks.
Leaders of People for the American Way, a left-leaning advocacy group based in Washington, say they have sent hundreds of emails to town officials this week over retired Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin's scheduled appearance at the breakfast Thursday.
Boykin, a former senior Pentagon official, bills himself as a warrior for Jesus Christ. He made headlines nationally for describing Muslims as idol-worshipers and comparing the war on terrorism to the biblical fight between Christians and the devil.
Ocean City spokeswoman Donna Abbott said the privately organized mayor's prayer breakfast, a tradition for more than 20 years, uses no tax dollars. Meehan is an invited guest who plans to attend but did not select the speaker, she said.
Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, said his group wants the mayor to refuse to attend to the event, or to force the organizer to revoke Boykin's invitation. More than 700 people have emailed Meehan and town officials since Monday through a tool on its website to protest the gathering, according to the group, which says its mission is to advocate for equality, free speech and freedom of religion.
"Ocean City works hard to maintain its reputation as a family-friendly destination open to all-comers," Keegan said in a statement. "An official endorsement of Jerry Boykin would send the wrong message about what the city stands for."
Boykin did not respond to requests for an interview. He travels the country for speaking engagements and was near Charleston, S.C., earlier this month to introduce GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown.
Maryland's ACLU staff attorney David Rocah said in a statement: "The group that invited Boykin has a First Amendment right to chose whomever it wishes as its speaker, and Gen. Boykin has a First Amendment right to make whatever offensive comments he wishes."
But Rocah added: "Anyone who cares about religious freedom and equality has a perfect right to be concerned about Gen. Boykin's islamophobic statements, and a right to protest any group that invites him."
An organizer for the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, sponsored by the Boston-based Universalist Association of Congregations, also is rallying supporters to protest the event.
Boykin was rebuked by President George W. Bush in 2003 after Boykin publicly described a U.S. Army battle against a Muslim warlord in Somalia in 1993, saying: "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." He also gave unauthorized speeches at evangelical church functions while serving as deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and war-fighting.
The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations has said Boykin has a "long, shameful history of extreme and bigoted views."
Meehan did not respond to a request for an interview. Spokeswoman Abbott said the mayor was tied up in budget meetings Tuesday.
Meehan is hopeful that Boykin's remarks will be respectful, Abbott said.
"We have been assured that remarks made will not be divisive or inflammatory remarks," she said. "He wants to allow the speaker to have his say, and we have been given no indication that the topic will be anything but inspirational."
The breakfast's organizer, Bruce Spangler, did not return a call for comment. Spangler, however, told The Dispatch newspaper in Ocean City earlier this month that he was excited about Boykin's appearance, calling Boykin an expert on Islamic history and saying his "testimony" would be too exciting to miss.
"This country was founded on biblical values, and we are getting away from that," Spangler told The Dispatch.
The breakfast is scheduled from 7 to 9:15 a.m. on Thursday at the Clarion Resort Fontainebleau Hotel in Ocean City.