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