Mayor plans to issue ‘Bible Week’ proclamation despite threat of legal action

Thursday, November 12, 1998

Every year since 1994, the mayor of Gilbert, Ariz., has issued a “Bible Week” proclamation.

Despite concerns voiced by the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that the proclamation subverts the separation of church and state, Mayor Cynthia Dunham plans to do so again this year.

Dunham says she will issue a proclamation at next week's town council meeting to designate the week of Nov. 23 as “Bible Week.”

“The community is very supportive of Bible Week, which is why we do it,” Dunham told the Arizona Republic. “It recognizes the important role churches play in our community.”

Dunham says she was prompted to issue the proclamations by the New York-based, nonprofit group, the National Bible Association. Since 1941, the Bible Association has encouraged governors and mayors to observe National Bible Week during Thanksgiving week. The association's mission statement says the group is dedicated to “encouraging everyone to read the Bible.”

Last year, Dunham issued a “Bible Week” proclamation that encouraged citizens to read the Bible and stated that “the Bible is the foundational document of the Judeo-Christian principles upon which our nation is conceived.”

Dunham issued the proclamation despite criticism from the Arizona ACLU.

Eleanor Eisenberg, the group's executive director, says the proclamation is an unconstitutional government entanglement with religion. Eisenberg says she will ask a judge to bar Dunham from issuing the proclamation.

“The proclamation clearly would violate the Arizona and U.S. Constitutions,” Eisenberg said. “It is divisive, and it excludes people. It is true that the Bible was a foundational document, but, despite that fact, our founding fathers knew that government should not become entangled with religion.”

Thomas May, president of the National Bible Association, said that government officials can issue the proclamations without running afoul of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

“The proclamation has nothing to do with pushing on anyone a particular faith,” May said. “Also, the establishment clause means freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

“What we have asked the mayors across the country to do is to encourage people to read, if they want to, the Bible,” he said. “I'm distressed that anyone would take any kind of umbrage against a public official encouraging a constituency to read a book that is held in the high esteem of the great majority of the public.”

May added that it was “rare” for Bible Week proclamations to spark objections.

Eisenberg says she disagrees with May's understanding of the religious liberty clauses of the Constitution.

“Our system of government and the Constitution protect us not only from government intrusion into our lives with respect to religion but also serve to protect us from the will of the majority,” she said. “That protection is especially useful when the majority is not correct. It was not terribly long ago that a majority in this country thought women were not qualified to vote.”

In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman noted that the purpose of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment is “to prevent, as far as possible, the intrusion of either [the church or the state] into the precincts of the other.” The high court, however, recognized in Lemon that “total separation is not possible in an absolute sense,” and that “some relationship between government and religious organizations is inevitable.”

In 1983 the court said the Nebraska Legislature could employ Christian ministers to give prayers at the opening of its sessions without violating the establishment clause.

A year later, the court ruled that a Rhode Island city government could, constitutionally, include a creche in a Christmas display. Justice Warren Burger, writing for the majority in that case, Lynch v. Donnelly, noted that America's “history is replete with official references to the value and invocation of Divine guidance in deliberations and pronouncements of the Founding Fathers and contemporary leaders.”

Burger noted that “executive orders and other official announcements of Presidents and of the Congress have proclaimed both Christmas and Thanksgiving National Holidays in religious terms.” Burger, moreover, said that “Congress has directed the President to proclaim a National Day of Prayer each year 'on which [day] the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”