BATAVIA, N.Y. (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 a planned far-right political event at his church this week could lead to racial violence.
In the letter sent on Aug. 3, Attorney General Letitia James warned organizers of the ReAwaken America Tour event that her office could take legal action if “extremist” rhetoric by speakers spurred violent or unlawful conduct.
The two-day event at the Cornerstone Church in Batavia, midway between Buffalo and Rochester, is scheduled 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 but sent to them through the church.
Cornerstone Church Pastor Paul Doyle said there was no validity to the suggestion that the event was promoting racism or violence.
“I take exception to the words she uses, like extreme views," he told The Associated Press. "What’s that mean? What’s extreme? We’re conservative Christians. Now we’re extreme?”
He said the letter had scared members of his congregation, a group of about 150 to 200 people, which he described as multiethnic and multiracial.
“It feels like she’s trying to intimidate me. We’re a small-town church,” Doyle said.
A few dozen people gathered outside the Batavia church earlier this week to protest the event, which also will feature MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and people who tried to throw out the results of the 2020 presidential election.
The U.S. Constitution offers strong protections to free speech and James, in her letter, didn't directly ask for the event to be canceled or for certain speakers to be disinvited.
But James said she was concerned that the event, which is being held on the five-year anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, “could spur extremist or racially motivated violence.”
Addressing Flynn and Clark, James cited “past extremist statements made by yourselves and the other featured speakers on the tour," specifically mentioning a racist conspiracy theory that recently inspired a gunman to kill 10 Black people at a Buffalo supermarket.
Investigators, she said, “stand ready” to respond to any violations of state laws.
“You are therefore instructed to take all necessary steps to ensure that the event complies fully with the requirements of New York’s civil rights laws and all other applicable state and federal statutes,” James wrote, noting the possibility of $5,000 fines 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 event organizers, not the church or pastor.
The letter didn't cite any specific acts of violence at past ReAwaken America Tour events.
At one tour’s stop in Phoenix in January, police were called after attendees taunted teachers from a nearby school because they were wearing medical masks.
Some of the events have drawn small but peaceful protests. After a community uproar in Oregon, a ReAwaken tour stop in April was relocated from a county fairground in rural city of Redmond to a minor league baseball stadium in the state capital, over two hours away.
At some of the events, the Christian group Faithful America has dispatched a mobile billboard truck to circle the events to “expose the speakers as false prophets who are twisting and distorting religion to attack democracy,” its leader, the Rev. Nathan Empsall, said.
Doyle said that his church’s Facebook page started getting comments accusing it of racism within minutes of announcing the event would be held in Batavia instead of nearby Rochester, where another venue had canceled after a backlash from elected officials, entertainers and others.
Doyle said the church is contemplating possible action but was not more specific.
“Harassment from our own government. I feel harassed. I am a law-abiding — I’m a businessman. I’m law-abiding, I’m God-fearing, and I’m hosting an event," he said.