Arizona town defends ‘Bible Week’ proclamation

Tuesday, July 13, 1999

Gilbert, Ariz.,...
Gilbert, Ariz., Mayor Cynthia Dunham laughs with reporters July 12 outside the Federal Building in Phoenix, where she is trying to defend a town Bible Week proclamation against an Arizona ACLU lawsuit.

PHOENIX — Attorneys told a federal judge yesterday that Gilbert Mayor Cynthia Dunham’s Bible Week proclamation last year was merely ceremonial and had no legal bearing.

Gilbert city officials are trying to get a lawsuit by the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union dismissed on the grounds that the proclamation was only a political statement and not an official act of the mayor’s office.

The ACLU is challenging the proclamation as a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of separation of church and state. However, an attorney for the mayor says the case is about the mayor’s right to freedom of speech.

“There are a lot of things public officials do that get people angry,” said Walter M. Weber, a private attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice who is representing Dunham.

But the mayor must be able to speak in public without worrying about getting sued, Weber says.

Tim Nelson, an attorney representing the ACLU, says citizens have the right to challenge what the mayor says or does.

“Under (the city’s) view, no citizen could come and complain about what elected officials do,” he said.

Nelson says the city is indeed liable for actions of the mayor. Over the past 45 years, Gilbert’s mayors have issued about 300 proclamations, and every time, the mayor had the final authority to make actions by the city occur, he said.

Thomas May, president of the National Bible Association in New York, said his association created Bible Week in 1941 to bring communities together.

“We’re not telling people to read the Bible and join a Billy Graham crusade or anything,” said May, who is not involved with the case. Instead, May says the week is meant to encourage people to read the Bible and recognize its historical and cultural roots in America.

Every year, the Bible Association asks one mayor and one governor to send letters urging their counterparts across the country to proclaim Bible Week.

Last year, Gov. Jane Hull and Dunham both responded, proclaiming Nov. 22-29 as Bible Week in Arizona.

The state proclamation called the Bible “a constant source of moral and spiritual guidance for Americans.” The state said the Bible is “the foundational document of the Judeo-Christian principles upon which our nation was conceived.”

But the celebration was put on hold after a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on the proclamation. The Arizona ACLU also filed a lawsuit against the governor and Dunham last November, claiming the week violated the Constitution and discriminated against non-Christians.

The governor later backed down after protests by non-Christian groups.

But Dunham stood by her proclamation and said last week that it was not meant to promote one religion over another. It was just a speech and not binding to anyone, she said.

“That doesn’t wash when a government official in some public capacity thinks the Bible is her favorite work and decides everyone should read it,” said Barry Lynn, executive director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who is not involved with the federal suit. “The mayor is giving the blessing of her office to a specific work, and that is wrong.”

Lynn, who is a practicing attorney as well as a minister in United Church of Christ, says tolerance for religion in the public arena has reached a critical mass after attempts by teachers to bring back prayer in the schools and the U.S. House passing bills on the Ten Commandments.

“People are fed up with politicians using religion as a political football,” Lynn said. “People are doing religion already, they don’t need the government to remind them about it.”