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There are a handful of hot-button issues that never fail to arouse the ire of the masses in the letters to the editor sections and in the Internet comment threads: Race, abortion, guns, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama come to mind. Now I can add one more to that list: religious freedom.

The last time I addressed this topic was almost three years ago when the Enfield Board of Education settled a two-year-old lawsuit challenging the school district’s habit of holding high school graduations in a large Catholic church in nearby Bloomfield.

I basically wrote that, even as an agnostic, I didn’t think it was a big deal because no one was forced to worship. For that, I was labeled a “sanctimonious windbag.” And I’m sure there were harsher words uttered in bars and at kitchen tables across the state.

But Middletown Mayor Dan Drew’s organization of a National Prayer Day event scheduled for yesterday at city hall has stoked the flames once again. A letter to the editor of The Courant last week was measured in its tone, but Patrick McCann, co-chair on the Connecticut Coalition of Reason, insisted that since “the event focuses only [on] evangelical Christians, it is clearly discriminatory and unfair” to other religions and to non-believers.

But I’m not convinced. If Drew or anyone else at Middletown City Hall were to refuse a request from Muslims, Catholics, or Buddhists for a similar event, then it would be pretty easy to prove discrimination and actual harm — or for that matter, a violation of the so-called establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Similarly, if a high school history teacher were to take out a Bible and proclaim that it was the word of God, it would be pretty easy for non-Christian parents to demonstrate that their children, held captive in a classroom by a proselytizing instructor, was harmed by the actions of a public employee.

But in this case, Drew is merely conducting a miniature version of an event that has been organized by a Christian-centered organization, hosted by members of Congress every year in Washington since 1953 and typically attended by no less than the president himself. The difference, however, is that the Washington event isn’t held in a government building. That was Drew’s mistake.

Maybe a sympathetic Middletown hotel owner would be willing to donate conference-room space. Or perhaps my graduate school alma mater and good neighbor Wesleyan University, founded by Methodists in 1831, would be willing to let Drew and his flock use the historic and recently renovated Memorial Chapel at North College.

Memorial seats more than 500 and is handicapped accessible and air-conditioned. The chapel has excellent acoustics and a pipe organ that must be the envy of every church in town. Wouldn’t the ambiance of a gorgeous place of worship built in the 19th century — or any church in the city, for that matter — be a far better fit for a prayer event than the sterile secular confines of the Middletown Municipal Building?

Common sense tells us to move the prayer event to a non-government venue. But evidently Drew is not interested in doing that, so that leaves us where we are today.

The problem is that despite their protest against using government property for religious purposes, the complaining nonbelievers cannot demonstrate that they’ve actually been harmed. Indeed, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a complaint against National Prayer Day four years ago for precisely that reason: the plaintiffs lacked standing. “I feel excluded and unwelcome” and “people are praying on government property” aren’t enough.

So protesters routinely show up at the Middletown event brandishing signs that say “Nothing fails like prayer.” Nasty comments pro and con go up on the Middletown Patch.

What will happen in my own hometown of Salisbury, where the Board of Selectmen holds public hearings and town meetings in the Congregational Church whenever crowds are too large for Town Hall?

I understand the passion of people who feel they’ve been wronged. But even as a fellow nonbeliever, I could think of at least 100 other pressing issues that command my attention and get my blood boiling: stagnant middle-class wages, poor job growth, the almost exponential rise in healthcare costs, the appalling lack of affordable housing in our state, race relations, and police brutality — just to name a few.

Meanwhile, it would also be nice if the believers would get off their soapboxes and stop preaching eternal damnation to those of us who won’t take anything on faith. But one thing at a time.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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