National prayer day spurs church-state concerns

Friday, May 5, 2000

A group with Americans United for Separation of Church and State pickets outside Cobb County Prayer Breakfast in Marietta, Ga., yesterday.

State and federal representatives who participated in the National Day of Prayer, an annual celebration, were roundly criticized by civil libertarians who say government officials nationwide have unconstitutionally promoted Christianity.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., lambasted the governors of Nebraska and Georgia for actively participating in and promoting yesterday’s 49th National Day of Prayer. In 1952, Congress approved legislation urging the executive branch to announce the National Day of Prayer each year. President Clinton has announced the prayer day each year since winning the White House in 1992.

Focus on the Family, an ultraconservative group based in Colorado, holds prayer-day events nationwide and encourages government officials to participate in and advertise the events. According to the group’s Web site, the prayer day is intended “to communicate with every family the need for personal repentance and prayer, and to mobilize families to personal and corporate prayer, particularly on behalf of the nation and those in leadership of all levels of local, national, church and educational areas of influence.”

In Georgia, the Cobb County Board of Commissioners and Gov. Roy Barnes have been threatened with lawsuits for their involvement in a prayer-day event held yesterday morning at the Cobb Galleria Convention Center. The Cobb County Finance Department sold tickets to and coordinated the event, where Barnes was the featured speaker.

Calls to Barnes’ office about his comments at the event were not returned.

Walter Bell, president of Americans United’s Georgia chapter, sent a letter to Barnes earlier this week urging the Democratic governor to forgo the event.

“State-supported religion may be commonplace in other countries, but here in the United States it is unwelcome and unwise,” Bell said. “Simply put, religion does not need government’s help to grow and prosper.”

Bell said he and about 10 other people hovered outside the Cobb County convention center early yesterday morning to protest the event.

“The government has helped legitimize this event,” Bell said. “We have asked them to relinquish and cease all involvement in the event.”

Bell added that several civil rights groups are contemplating filing a lawsuit against Cobb County and the governor.

In 1998, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia asked Cobb County officials to sever their ties with the prayer-day event.

“While individuals and organizations may sponsor a religious activity such as a prayer breakfast, the government may not,” wrote Teresa Nelson, the Georgia ACLU executive director, in 1998. “If any county funding — however minor — is expended to support such an event, then the county is violating the separation of church and state and the freedom of conscience protections guaranteed by the United States and Georgia Constitutions.”

Bill Byrne, chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, responded to the ACLU in a letter dated May 16, 1998. Byrne told the ACLU that “the county has been reimbursed for any and all expenses associated with employee assistance with the event” and that his board would not “sponsor, financially support, or otherwise endorse” future prayer-day events. Byrne did not say who reimbursed the county.

Byrne was unavailable for comment regarding yesterday’s prayer-day event and calls requesting any commissioner to respond to Americans United’s criticism were not returned.

Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns’ decision to speak at noon yesterday at a prayer-day ceremony on state grounds in Lincoln also prompted attacks from Americans United. Last year, the Republican governor drew the ire of the state chapter of the ACLU when he refused to officially recognize an Earth Awareness event organized by Wiccans and said he would not sign any bill or resolution that contravened his Christian values.

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said Johanns’ involvement in the National Day of Prayer ceremony was “another blunder.”

“The American people don’t need Congress, the president or any government official to tell them when and how to pray,” Lynn said. “The National Day of Prayer is a reckless mixture of church and state that should be shut down.”

Chris Peterson, Johanns’ spokesman, said the governor was merely involved in an event “highlighting the importance of prayer in our everyday lives.”

Johanns told those gathered at the prayer-day event that the nation has a long history of being guided by prayer. He also said that he is influenced by a Christian apostle’s biblical advice to “speak boldly” about his faith.

For the second year in a row, Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura refused to join the prayer-day celebrations.

“As the governor said a year ago, he respects an individual’s right to pray, and the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion,” said John Wodele, Ventura’s spokesman, in a prepared statement. “He believes prayer and religion are personal issues.”

Last year, the independent governor irked organizers of the National Day of Prayer when he told a Playboy reporter: “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers.”

Ventura’s stance against issuing a National Day of Prayer proclamation was hailed by the nonprofit group American Atheists.

“As a group interested in protecting the civil rights of Atheists and the integrity of the wall of separation between government and religion, we find it admirable that Gov. Ventura is standing firm in treating sectarian belief — or the lack of it — as a strictly private matter,” said the group’s president Ellen Johnson in a prepared statement.