Arizona governor’s proclamation for National Bible Week brings suit

Sunday, December 6, 1998

Many governors proclaimed National Bible Week in November, but only one was taken to court for it.

A federal judge in Arizona issued a temporary order last week calling Gov. Jane Hull's “Bible Week” proclamation a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. Sometime soon, the governor will have to defend her action in court.

In case you missed it, National Bible Week is observed by millions of Americans throughout the United States every Thanksgiving week. Sponsored by the National Bible Association — a group primarily composed of business and professional leaders of various faiths — the events of the week are meant to “encourage everyone to read the Bible.”

The sponsors of the week don't promote any one interpretation or translation of the scriptures. The idea is simply to get people to pick up the Bible and read it.

Presidents as well as many governors and mayors have been proclaiming National Bible Week since it was started in 1941 by a group of Christian and Jewish laymen. Now a court has been asked to decide if these proclamations violate the First Amendment prohibition against government “establishment” of religion.

Opponents argue that the governor has used her office to weigh in on the side of the Judeo-Christian traditions over other faiths and over non-religion. Proponents reply that a “Bible Week” proclamation simply recognizes the importance of the Bible to many Americans and doesn't come close to government endorsement of religion.

This is a tough case. On one hand, government officials routinely issue proclamations of all kinds. Governor Hull, in fact, says that she signs more than 400 proclamations each year — including one recognizing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Many citizens don't see the harm.

On the other hand, the language used by the governor about the Bible as “a constant source of moral and spiritual guidance for Americans throughout our history” strikes some citizens as government promotion of religion.

What will the courts say? It's hard to predict. At least one judge in Arizona appears ready to rule against the governor (and all the other Arizona officials who have issued similar proclamations). But if the case goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, it seems unlikely that a majority of the current justices will declare the Arizona governor's proclamation unconstitutional. In past cases, the court has indicated a reluctance to strike down ceremonial references to religion by government officials. After all, both Congress and the court open with a prayer. And the president declares a National Day of Prayer each year.

The justices might well avoid ruling on the merits of the case altogether by deciding that no one is sufficiently injured by such a proclamation to have the necessary legal standing to bring a lawsuit.

It's also possible that “Bible Week” resolutions could cross the line for some justices because they focus on one holy book-and, in Arizona at least, because they highly praise the spiritual value of reading the Bible.

But even if the proclamation is upheld by the courts, government officials should be careful about the wording of their resolutions and declarations, making it clear that the government doesn't intend to promote or inhibit religion. Governors and mayors (not to mention presidents) represent all Americans (“We the People”), and that includes people of all faiths or none.

Governor Hull's proclamation states that for 58 years “men and women of all faiths” have come together to “sponsor National Bible Week.” Perhaps that was more the case in 1941 when religious diversity in America usually meant Protestant, Catholic and Jew. Today, however, America is a very different place. All of the world's major faiths are now highly visible in the United States, and a growing number of Americans have no religious preference.

It's one thing for government officials to acknowledge the significant role of the Bible in American history and society. Who can argue with that? And it's not inappropriate to recognize the National Bible Association for its efforts to honor the Bible.

But it's something else again for elected officials to use “Bible Week” as an opportunity to promote or endorse a particular religious message or holy book. That tells some citizens that they are outsiders in their own country.

With careful wording-and with sensitivity-proclamations by governing officials need not lead to lawsuits. When all is said and done, of course, the Bible doesn't need the blessing of Caesar. The remarkable success of National Bible Week for 58 years has little or nothing to do with government proclamations or resolutions; it has to do with the energy and commitment of the volunteers who make it happen.

As Jefferson and Madison well knew, all that people of any religion really need from their government is the liberty to practice and proclaim their faith openly and freely without interference.