LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Candidates in the closely watched Senate race in Arkansas sparred after Republican Rep. Tom Cotton said Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor believes "faith is something that only happens at 11 o'clock on Sunday mornings."
Pryor accused Cotton of attacking his faith. "I'm disappointed in Congressman Cotton's deeply personal attack on me," Pryor said in a statement. "He and I may disagree on issues, but for him to question my faith is out of bounds."
The two-term senator talks often about his faith and quotes from the Bible during campaign appearances. He made his faith the centerpiece of an ad last year: "I'm not ashamed to say that I believe in God," Pryor said in the spot, which showed him holding a Bible. "And I believe in his word."
Cotton, a freshman congressman, made the remarks in a television interview Tuesday when he was asked about Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case that family-owned companies don't have to provide insurance coverage for contraception. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties objected to the requirement under the president's health care law on religious grounds.
Cotton said the ruling showed the health care law infringed on Arkansans' liberties. "Barack Obama and Mark Pryor think that faith is something that only happens at 11 o'clock on Sunday mornings," Cotton told KNWA. "That's when we worship, but faith is what we live every single day, and the government shouldn't infringe on the rights of religious liberty."
Later, Cotton said in a statement that his comments were directed at the federal health law and not at Pryor's faith.
"Senator Pryor is a man of faith and practices it with commendable openness, which I respect, but I wish he would respect Arkansans' right to practice our faith," Cotton said.
The increasingly expensive race in Arkansas is closely watched because Republicans need to gain six seats in November to capture majority control of the Senate. Top-tier GOP targets are the Republican-leaning Southern states — Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina — where Obama is unpopular and incumbent Democratic senators are struggling to hold onto their seats.
The two Arkansas campaigns squabbled earlier this year over Cotton's Army service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pryor said in an interview with NBC in March that Cotton's military service alone wasn't a qualification to serve in the Senate, though Pryor said he respected Cotton's service.
"In the Senate, we have all kinds of different people, all kinds of different folks who come from different backgrounds," Pryor said. "And I think that's part of this sense of entitlement, that he gives off, that almost is like, I served my country, therefore let me into the Senate. That's not the way it works in Arkansas."
Cotton later released an ad that mentioned Pryor's comments and featured comments from Cotton's drill sergeant.
Associated Press writer Tom Beaumont contributed to this report.