Federal judge issues negative order against Arizona’s ‘Bible Week’ proclamation

Monday, November 23, 1998

The same federal judge who barred the Gilbert, Ariz., mayor from proclaiming “Bible Week” has issued a temporary order calling the governor's issuance of a similar proclamation an unconstitutional act in violation of the separation of church and state.

Late Friday the Arizona Civil Liberties Union asked U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver to issue a judgment that Gov. Jane Hull's Bible Week proclamation, issued Nov. 5, was unconstitutional. Hull made the proclamation a few days before Gilbert Mayor Cynthia Dunham was to also proclaim Nov. 23-29 Bible Week.

Both the governor and mayor were encouraged to declare Bible Week by a New York-based, nonprofit group, the National Bible Association. Since 1941, the group has urged politicians to observe National Bible Week during Thanksgiving week. The proclamation lauds the Bible as the foundational document of Judeo-Christian principles and urges citizens to read it.

Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona ACLU, said she was confident Silver would also find Hull's proclamation a subversion of the separation of church and state.

“She is the same judge that restrained the Gilbert mayor from issuing the same proclamation,” Eisenberg said. “We are very confident that Hull's proclamation was also an inappropriate government action.”

Silver, who only days before barred Dunham from proclaiming Bible Week, said: “On the face of this document, it certainly has the (indication) of being religion and purposely not secular.”

Silver has agreed to a hearing on Dec. 11 to determine whether to lift the restraining order against Gilbert's mayor or let the injunction stand. No date has been set regarding Hull's proclamation.

Eisenberg also said that Tucson's mayor agreed on Nov. 20 to rescind a Bible Week proclamation he had issued in October.

“After conducting limited research on this issue, this office concluded that the proclamation as drafted is probably a violation of the First Amendment,” City Attorney Thomas J. Berning wrote in a memo to the mayor and the city council.

Eisenberg said she was pleased with Tucson's decision but was distressed that her office had received complaints about similar proclamations throughout the nation.

According to the National Bible Association, more than 30 states and every president since Franklin Roosevelt have issued Bible Week proclamations.

Jim Henderson, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a national legal and education firm that advocates a greater role for religion in public society, said that such proclamations do not advance religion.

“If you are citizen in Gilbert, you still get your water, your fire and police protection, even though you don't own a Bible and may run in terror when you see someone coming towards you with one,” Henderson said. “There may be citizens that don't like the proclamation, but there simply is no actual injury to anyone.”

Henderson's group will also defend Gilbert's mayor and her proclamation before Judge Silver on Dec. 11.

“Historically such proclamations have been made ever since George Washington,” Henderson said. “In fact President Clinton has issued a 'Year of the Bible' proclamation.”

Henderson also said that Silver's preliminary orders were not based on opposing arguments.

“We are looking forward to opposing the preliminary injunction against Gilbert and telling the district judge why she should resist the temptation to decide a political question,” he said.

Stephen Montoya, the volunteer ACLU attorney who represented the group before Judge Silver, disagreed with Henderson's assertion that the proclamations did not violate the separation of church and state.

“A fundamental reason why we felt we had to sue the government to have the proclamations declared unconstitutional was because many in the Christian faith believe in absolute separation between the kingdom of God and the realm of man,” Montoya said. “The Bible is alive and well in America and always has been and will be and the last thing the Bible needs is an endorsement from some state official in order to promote it. The Bible's best promotion is itself.”