A pagan priestess runs into the president of the atheists in a phone booth in New York.
No, it's not a joke — it's the start of a controversial report from National Public Radio — and your tax dollars may have paid for it.
New York City officials this fall launched an art project called "Public Prayer Booth," which features a modified phone booth rigged up with a flip-down kneeler. Passers-by, if they're in the mood, can bend to their (padded) knee and say a prayer — a private moment in a very public atmosphere.
To cover the story, NPR sent reporter Margot Adler, a Wiccan priestess and author of two books on paganism. Lo and behold, she happened upon the president of the New York City Atheists, Ken Bronstein, an outspoken opponent of public religious displays.
"I just happened to be walking by at this exact moment," Bronstein told Adler. Then he denounced the display of what he called a "supernatural situation" on city property. Bronstein said that it was inappropriate for the public sphere and had to go.
"You know, if they want to put it on private property, that's where it should go — but not in public space," said Bronstein.
Critics are calling the radio report a biased assault on religion — one that's being supported in part with public funds.
"There are serious efforts under way right now to erase religious expression from the public square," said Father Jonathan Morris, a Catholic priest and FOX News contributor. "I don't understand why these groups would be so fascinated with taking this [religious expression] away."
NPR vehemently denied that its coverage was opposed to prayer or organized religion.
"There's no bias in this story and to imply that there is because of a reporter's religious beliefs is absurd," said Anna Christopher, an NPR spokeswoman. "[Adler] spoke with several different people with several different viewpoints on the booth."
Adler said traffic was sparse by the booth and she had trouble finding someone who took it seriously enough to pray there, but she interviewed a woman named Francesca Richardson who lives on disability payments and stopped to say a prayer. Adler compared her to Avery Williams, 7, who said grace for her ailing pets.
"Well, my gerbil died so we prayed for him, and my dog had a very bad leg so we prayed for that too," said Williams.
Asked whether their reporter was taking snipes at the faithful on the government dime, NPR was adamant that she wasn't and explained that only a minuscule amount of its funding comes from the government.
"Less than two percent [of NPR's budget] comes from competitive grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts," Christopher said.
"There's no disrespect for religion at all. Our reporters are able to separate their private practices ... and their standards as journalists, and in no way does [Adler's] religious affiliation affect that."
Religious groups were enthused about the project, saying it provided an opportunity to discuss religion in the public sphere.
"Any respectful artistic expression that gets us thinking about spiritual realities, respectful artistic expression is good," said Morris.
The public flare-up is just what Dylan Mortimer — the 29-year-old artist who created the installation — was hoping to stir up with his work. Religion is "just one of those topics you don't bring up at the dinner table," he said. "My hope and my dream would be that there will be a respectful way to engage in dialogue."
On that front, Mortimer's work has been a smashing success.
"Some people love them, some people use them sincerely in prayer, some people use them jokingly. Some people laugh at it, some people are offended, some people have put graffiti on them," Mortimer told FOXNews.com. "All of those reactions are totally valid."
Mortimer's installment, which is set to come down later this month, is sponsored by New York City's Department of Parks and Recreation as part of its 40-year-old Art in the Parks series. Asked about the controversy over the artwork, the city said it stood by Mortimer's piece.
"[Mortimer] is working independently and his work raises questions about religion in the public realm, but he does not take a position on it," said Christina DeLuca, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. "As he says, the goal is to spark dialogue, and we hope New Yorkers receive the work in this spirit."