BATAVIA, NY (AP) — A Christian pastor in Western New York said he felt intimidated and harassed after the state’s attorney general, a Democrat, sent a letter saying she believed that far-right political event planned at his church this week could lead to racial violence.
In the August 3 letter, Attorney General Letitia James warned organizers of the ReAwaken America Tour event that her office could take legal action if the speakers’ “extremist” rhetoric incites violent or illegal conduct.
The two-day event at Cornerstone Church in Batavia, halfway between Buffalo and Rochester, is expected to feature President Donald Trump’s son Eric Trump, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and others. James’ letter was addressed to Flynn and event organizer Clay Clark and sent to care of the church.
Cornerstone Church pastor Paul Doyle said there was no validity to the suggestion the event promoted racism or violence.
“I object to the words she uses, like extreme opinions,” he told The Associated Press. “What does that mean? What is extreme? We are conservative Christians. Now we are extreme?”
He said the letter frightened members of his congregation, a group of around 150 to 200 people, which he described as multiethnic and multiracial.
“I feel like she’s trying to intimidate me. We are a small town church,” Doyle said.
A few dozen people gathered outside the church in Batavia earlier this week to protest the event, which will also feature MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and people who tried to reject the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The U.S. Constitution provides strong protections for free speech, and James, in his letter, did not directly ask for the event to be canceled or certain speakers to be disinvited.
But James said she feared the event, being held on the fifth anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., “could spur extremist or racially motivated violence.” She cited “past extremist statements made by yourselves and other tour speakers,” specifically mentioning a racist conspiracy theory that recently inspired a gunman to kill 10 black people in a Buffalo supermarket.
Investigators, she said, “stand ready” to respond to any violations of state laws.
“You are therefore responsible for taking all necessary steps to ensure that the event fully complies with the requirements of New York’s civil rights laws and all other applicable state and federal laws,” James wrote, noting the possible fines of $5,000 for violations.
James’ office declined to comment on the pastor’s complaint that the letter was intended to chill free speech, but noted that the letter was addressed to the organizers of the event, not the church or the pastor. .
The letter did not cite any specific acts of violence during past ReAwaken America Tour events.
During a stop on a tour in Phoenix in January, police were called after attendees taunted teachers at a nearby school for wearing medical masks.
Some of the events sparked small but peaceful protests. After a community uproar in Oregon, a ReAwaken tour stop in April was moved from a county fairground in the rural town of Redmond to a minor league ballpark in the state capital, over two hours away.
At some events, the Christian group Faithful America sent a mobile billboard truck to circle the events to “expose speakers as false prophets who twist and twist religion to attack democracy,” its leader said, Reverend Nathan Empsall. .
Doyle said his church’s Facebook page began receiving comments accusing him of racism minutes after he announced the event would be held in Batavia instead of nearby Rochester, where another venue was canceled after a backlash from elected officials, artists and others.
Doyle said the church was considering possible action but was not specific.
“Harassment from our own government. I feel harassed. I’m a law-abiding — I’m a businessman. I respect the law, I fear God and I organize an event,” he said.
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