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Texas Gov. Perry's public day of prayer draws fire from clergy and atheists

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has called for a public day of prayer and fasting, prompting criticism from First Amendment watchdog groups, atheists, and the Houston Clergy Council.

By Staff writer / July 14, 2011

Gov. Rick Perry (R) of Texas, seen here at a Boy Scouts ceremony aboard the USS Midway in San Diego, June 29, has called for a day of public prayer and fasting, to be held Aug. 6 in Houston's Reliant Center.

Gregory Bull / AP / File

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The American debate over the mixing of politics and religion is swirling in Texas.

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Gov. Rick Perry’s call for Americans to gather in Houston’s Reliant Stadium for a day of public prayer and fasting on Aug. 6 has drawn the ire of atheist groups and concerns from interfaith church leaders as well.

Titled “The Response,” the event is intended to bring together people to address the nation’s “state of crisis” through Christian prayer. The website (theresponseusa.com) features a one-minute video invitation from Governor Perry, in which he says in part, “I’m all too aware of government’s limitations when it comes to fixing things that are spiritual in nature. That’s where prayer comes in, and we need it more than ever.”

But opponents say what’s needed is a clearer line between government and religion.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Madison, Wisc., group concerned with the separation of church and state, filed a lawsuit July 13 in the Southern District Court of Texas, located in Houston. It seeks to restrain Perry from being involved in the prayer event and to declare his endorsement of it unconstitutional.

The governor’s actions violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, the group says, because it “gives the appearance that the government prefers evangelical Christian religious beliefs over other religious beliefs and non-beliefs,” says a press release from FFRF.

American politicians historically called for prayer days for the nation without much controversy, but in more recent decades, “rather than uniting, many critics see them as highly politicized and highly partisan,” says Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Conflicting court decisions are on the books, she notes. “We’re still hashing these things out ... and this kind of case brings all this to the fore and forces us to define more carefully what ‘establishment’ means and what ‘religion’ means.”

The lawsuit also raises concerns that the governor has been working with the American Family Association (AFA), which “promotes a rabid evangelical Christian agenda,” the FFRF statement says.

Another group calls the event a diversion from problems the governor should be focused on solving.

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