Latest church-state divide: Bible Week

PUBLIC RELIGION

A sleepy Phoenix suburb is the unlikely setting for America's latest uproar over drawing the line of separation between church and state.

In a steely-eyed standoff, the mayor of Gilbert and the American Civil Liberties Union are at odds over whether the town can declare this week as National Bible Week.

It's a largely symbolic act - one embraced each year by about 30 governors and 500 mayors nationwide. But it's also a tradition that many are being forced to rethink - to the chagrin of the National Bible Association, which promotes the annual event.

For now, at least, the ACLU holds the upper hand. Last week, a federal judge barred Gilbert's mayor from declaring Bible Week - and punctuated that ruling with a separate one on Friday declaring unconstitutional a similar proclamation by Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull (R).

The brouhaha in Arizona underscores the ambiguity that surrounds church-state law in general. Legal experts say the confusion has only intensified as the courts, which have long dealt with cases concerning religion and public schools, are increasingly grappling with cases involving city and state government.

"It is the subject of endless debate," says Charles Hinkle, co-chair of the American Bar Association's First Amendment Rights Committee and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. "The [Constitution's] establishment clause is rather vague and confusing," he explains, referring to language that prohibits Congress from enacting law "respecting an establishment of religion."

Several recent court rulings send such mixed messages that lawmakers may well find themselves teetering atop the church-state wall. Among these are the following.

In Ohio, a federal court allowed the quote "With God All Things Are Possible" to remain over the statehouse's entrance.

In Denver, a US appeals court rejected a lawsuit by a citizen who fought his local city council over public prayer. He sought the right to begin a city meeting with the prayer, "Our Mother, who art in heaven."

A federal appeals court allowed Hawaii state employees to observe Good Friday, a religious day. Earlier, a Good Friday school holiday in Illinois was struck down as unconstitutional by a different federal appeals court.

Fighting the rulings

While the court has barred Arizona and the town of Gilbert from proclaiming Bible Week, Governor Hull and Mayor Cynthia Dunham vow to fight the decisions. A Dec. 11 hearing is set for the Gilbert case.

The proclamations' wording follows the suggestions of the National Bible Association, a New York-based nonprofit group that promotes the event. The proclamations call the Bible "the foundational document of the Judeo-Christian principles upon which our Nation was conceived," and a source of inspiration and comfort for millions of Americans.

No one seems more surprised by the flap than Thomas May, president of the association. He sees the controversy as stemming from a major misunderstanding.

"This is not an attempt to influence or control anyone's religion," he says. "We're simply saying, 'Read a book.' "

But the Arizona chapter of the ACLU doesn't see it that way. It says the proclamations violate the US and state constitutions. "This is not about people reading the Bible and practicing religion," says Eleanor Eisenberg of the Arizona ACLU. "It's about government telling people what Bible to read and when to read it."

Still, it's hard to say what the final legal outcome will be. These kinds of proclamations have never come before the US Supreme Court, in part because they involve no taxpayer money and because they affect few people, says Marc Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress in New York.

Given the uncertain legal climate, some cities are reconsidering their Bible Week proclamations. Tucson Mayor George Miller, at the ACLU's request, quietly rescinded the proclamation he signed in October, after a city attorney said it was probably unconstitutional.

Last year, the mayor of Lacy, Wash., decided not to go forward with a Bible week proclamation at the request of the ACLU. Likewise, officials in Des Moines, Wash., and Kent, Wash., rescinded theirs.

A mayoral stand

This year, however, Kent's Mayor Jim White has issued a Bible week proclamation and has so far refused local ACLU requests to cancel it. The Washington ACLU has not decided if it will take the issue to court.

For 57 years, the National Bible Association has asked government officials to declare the week of Thanksgiving as Bible Week - and each year about 500 mayors and 30 governors do so, says Mr. May. With the exception of President Carter, every president since Harry Truman has served as the group's honorary chairman.

Where the law stands

The US Supreme Court in 1983 found that prayer before government meetings was constitutional.

In other types of church- state cases, courts generally rely on a 1970s ruling known as the "Lemon test." That high-court ruling breaks the issue into three questions:

* Does it promote religion?

* Does it have a secular purpose?

* Does it unnecessarily entangle religion and government?

For the most part, legal experts say, government entities lose their cases when religious expressions are prominent on government property or paid for with taxpayer money.

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