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Rally at public park touted as an event to unify, but Islamic leader feels excluded

Published Jan. 14, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — It's an event with a name that sounds inclusive enough: "Liberty & Justice for All: A Rally for America's Future."

Scheduled for Saturday from 2 to 5 p.m. at North Straub Park at 400 Bayshore Drive NE, it's organized by neurosurgeon David McKalip, a tea party activist who plans to run for City Council next year.

McKalip is spending $5,000 to hold the event, which he said is independent from the tea party and is not meant to serve as a platform for his council run.

While McKalip has infused the rally with a healthy dose of religion, specifically the Christian variety, he said everyone is invited.

"America is about to enter a very difficult period in our history," McKalip said. "There will be a major downturn. We are facing a global war with Iran at the focal point. Americans need to think about the role of God in their lives. Whether or not they are religious or not, they can embrace these religious messages, such as 'Love they neighbor.' "

The flier for the rally quotes Galatians: "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and not be entangled again with the yoke of bondage." Four of the event's 13 speakers are Christian ministers. No other religion is represented.

"We've been trying to find a speaker from the Jewish community, but we haven't been able to find anyone," McKalip said.

One group that wasn't invited: The Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Hassan Shibly, the group's executive director, doesn't think the event is meant to unify. He points to Richard Swier, a religious leader who was invited to speak.

Swier, identified in rally materials as the "Christian founder of the Military Chaplain Corps," also blogs on Red County, a website that touts itself as "the place for state and local conservative politics."

He also belongs to a coalition of "education and patriotic" organizations that is objecting to Shibly being allowed to speak regularly at Hillsborough County high school history classes.

In a blog posting, Swier wrote that Shibly's group CAIR advocates for terrorist groups and Shibly is working to "subvert American law, loyalty to America, American values, and our American heritage, and (has) no place in our public schools." In another blog post, Swier wrote "we are not fighting a war on terror or Al Qaeda. Rather we are fighting a protracted war against shariah Islam."

Shibly called Swier's views libelous and defamatory and said they had no place at a so-called unity rally.

"If they want to hold a rally, they have every right to do that," Shibly said. "But it's very irresponsible to invite speakers who are promoting bigotry and religious hatred."

When asked if Swier's views might alienate and exclude those who follow shariah Islam, otherwise known as Islamic law, rally organizer McKalip said he hadn't read the blog posts. After a Times reporter sent him a link to Swier's blog posts, McKalip e-mailed his response:

"As far as Dr. Swier, here is my official comment: This rally will spread a positive message and Dr. Swier will be speaking about the creation of the army Chaplain Corps by George Washington. People are encouraged to learn more about both sides of issues and determine what they support."

Because it's a public park, McKalip can't restrict the event to people who share the political and religious beliefs of those speaking without establishing a protest zone, said City Attorney John Wolfe. In his permit application, McKalip didn't make any provisions for such an area.

McKalip said he doesn't have to. The only people who aren't welcome are those who plan to disrupt the event, he said.

But Shibly said it's hard to believe the event welcomes everyone if a speaker like Swier is featured.

"We're not going to protest it," Shibly said. "It's more of an issue of responsibility. They are alienating and making enemies of a substantial part of the Florida community. It's un-American. Our goal right now is to work together as Americans, and I don't think it's productive if you have speakers who don't believe in the freedom of religion and tolerance."