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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.

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“Gov. Perry obviously has no idea how to fix the state’s budget crisis, and instead of fixing it, he is literally using religion as a smokescreen,” says David Silverman, president of American Atheists, Inc., in Cranford, N.J. “If he wasn’t pulling this stunt, there would be huge uproar about the state of Texas’s financial situation, but ... a lot of Christians are giving him a bye - they’re giving him a break.”

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American Atheists is planning a protest near the event and calling for Perry to step down. “Prayer fails 100 percent of the time. There’s no God up there to listen to Gov. Perry’s financial woes.... What’s going to fix the state of Texas is humans, working,” Mr. Silverman says.

But atheists are not the only ones objecting.

The ecumenical Houston Clergy Council issued a letter in June saying it supports a “healthy boundary between church and state.” Signed by 24 Houston-area pastors and ministers, the letter says the event materials imply an exclusion of people who are not Christians of a certain type. And it says it is inappropriate for the governor to organize an event funded by the American Family Association, a group they note the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled a hate group for its anti-gay and anti-Muslim statements.

“Gov. Perry continues to look forward to the prayer event on Aug. 6,” says spokeswoman Catherine Frazier. “He believes it will serve as an important opportunity for Americans to come together and pray seeking the Lord’s wisdom and guidance as our nation navigates the challenges before it. And the pending litigation does not affect plans for the event.”

The lawsuit is “legal harassment,” says Eric Bearse, a spokesman for the AFA and The Response. So far, he says, 6,000 people are planning to attend, including Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

FFRP also objects to the National Day of Prayer, established by Congress in 1952. The majority of Americans - 57 percent - support the National Day of Prayer, while only 5 percent oppose it, according to a 2010 Gallup poll.

Americans are split more evenly as to the influence of organized religion: 29 percent say they’d like it to have more influence in the nation, another 29 percent would like it to have less, and 39 percent say it’s about right, according to a Gallup poll this year.

The Response website lists many national and international church-affiliated endorsers. It encourages people to bring a Bible and a notebook, and it notes that vendors will be offering a limited range of food and water, as the daylong event is intended to be for fasting as well as prayer.

Because the nation “has not honored God in our successes or humbly called on Him in our struggles,” the event’s website reads, the answer “is to gather in humility and repentance and ask God to intervene.”