Hartford's Inclusion of Muslim Prayers in Council Meetings Sparks Outrage

The decision by Hartford, Conn., leaders to begin kicking off their council meetings with a Koranic prayer -- in a show of solidarity with Muslims -- led to a busy morning Wednesday for staff members who were bombarded by hate mail overnight.

"All night long, the e-mails have been coming," Petrel Maylor, an executive assistant to Council President Jo Winch, told FoxNews.com. "I've been called everything except a child of God."

Winch, who was holding a news conference Wednesday to explain the change in invocations, gave her blessing to Muslim prayer in a press release Tuesday.

"I feel it is very important that, as a council, we project a culture of inclusiveness in the city of Hartford," Winch said in the release. "Too often it is our differences that divide us. In my opinion, it is our combination of differences that makes us strong."

Council leaders decided they would invite local imams "to perform the invocations at beginning of the council meetings in September," a break from the typical start of meetings with Christian prayers, or occasionally an invocation by a rabbi.

"One of the goals of the council is to give a voice to the many diverse peoples of the city, which is especially important given the recent anti-Islam events throughout the country," the press release said.

But critics say Hartford leaders are making an eternal mistake.

"If they check their history, we're a Christian nation," said Pat McEwen, a spokeswoman for Operation Save America, an evangelical Christian group. "For years, prayers just referred to God. I think breaking with that tradition is a bad idea."

McEwen told FoxNews.com Hartford leaders may be responding to the group's recent protests in front of mosques in Connecticut.

"I think they may have been offended but being offended is much less hard than ending up in hell," McEwen told FoxNews.com. "Those who are thinking Mohammed is the way is wrong and they're going to have an awful shock. ... I think opening with Islamic prayer is opening up for more people to go straight to hell."

The use of Koranic verses to start government meetings isn't a foreign concept. In Dearborn, Mich. where there's a large Muslim population, city officials invite imams, rabbis and priests to deliver the invocations, depending on their availability. The U.S. House of Representatives invited an imam to give the convocation for the first time in June 1991.

At least twice this year, the House started the workday with prayers from the Koran, said Anthony Wallace, a research analyst at the House Historian's office.

One group opposed to religious displays says the council has a legal right to include Muslim prayers at the start of meetings, even though it shouldn't.

"Now, I think no general body should start its sessions with any prayer," said Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "City council is supposed to make sure potholes get fixed and residents have the best cable service possible. They are not supposed to become pastors or religious officials in any way."

But Lynn called it "fundamental Christian hypocrisy" to oppose the use of Islamic texts.

"They have no problem as long as their prayers are prayed, but as soon as the next guy's prayers are uttered, they're outraged. This is a sad example of the intolerant hypocrisy of this still vibrant religious right," Lynn told FoxNews.com.