Arizona politicians’ religious proclamations spur attention, debate

Thursday, November 19, 1998

Controversy over political proclamations encouraging Christians to read their Bibles continues unabated in Arizona.

For years, Gilbert Mayor Cynthia Dunham has proclaimed the week of Nov. 23 as “Bible Week.” The proclamation heralds the Bible as the foundational document of Judeo-Christian principles and urges citizens to read it. Since 1941, the National Bible Association, a New York-based nonprofit group, has asked governors and mayors to observe Bible Week during Thanksgiving week.

Just as Dunham was preparing to proclaim Bible Week this year at a city council meeting last week, the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal court to stop the mayor from doing so. The AZCLU argued that the proclamation runs afoul of the First Amendment's establishment clause. Shortly after the request was filed, U.S. District Judge Roslyn O. Silver issued a temporary injunction barring Dunham from issuing the proclamation.

The actions by the state ACLU has focused a lot of attention on the proclamations. The Arizona Republic, a Phoenix daily newspaper, has produced a raft of articles rehashing the controversy. An Arizona State University professor conducted a poll revealing public feelings about the proclamations.

Although Dunham could not urge Gilbert citizens to observe Bible Week this year, she did decry the actions of the federal judge and the state civil rights group at a city council meeting this week.

“I am appalled at the behavior of the ACLU, and disappointed in the federal court,” she said. Dunham then claimed that the judge and the ACLU have “circumvented my free-speech rights and have not only prohibited me from issuing this non-binding proclamation, but have never afforded me the opportunity to air my side.”

Dunham, however, will have an opportunity to explain to the federal court why a government official should issue a proclamation encouraging constituents to read bibles. The federal judge agreed to a hearing on Dec. 11.

Rabbi Robert Kravitz, director of the American Jewish Committee's Phoenix operations, said that Dunham's free-speech rights were not at issue.

“The issue is whether an elected government official should issue such a proclamation lifting up a religious text or dealing with religious subjects at all,” Kravitz said. “It is our position that she does not have that privilege.”

The ACLU said it would take legal action against other government officials in the state for issuing Bible Week proclamations. Republican Gov. Jane Hull issued the same proclamation for the entire state a couple of weeks before Dunham announced her plans.

Kravitz called both proclamations offensive and said he hoped Gov. Hull would rescind the state proclamation in light of Judge Silver's ruling.

Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona ACLU, said that the group would file a lawsuit against Hull in federal court tomorrow. Eisenberg said she was just as disappointed in Hull's action and that it was not the duty of public officials to encourage religious study.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a national legal and education firm that advocates a greater role for religion in public society, has decided to come to the defense of Mayor Dunham and the proclamation.

Gary McCaleb, staff counsel for the ACLJ, said that the group would represent the town in its hearing before the federal judge.

“It is apparent to me the ACLU has a basic approach to this area of the law,” McCaleb said. “Specifically, it argues that any mention of religion in civic life by a public official is not permissible. As a general rule, however, a ceremonial recognition that does not advance religion is entirely constitutional.”

Rob Boston, assistant communications director for the national group Americans United for Separation of Church and State said that such proclamations do advance religion.

“It is simply not plausible to suggest that when a government official issues a proclamation lauding the Bible or religion that it does not advance religion,” Boston said. “Of course it does; that is the purpose of such proclamations. They create a symbolic union between church and state and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that such symbolic unions are unconstitutional.”