Nebraska governor proclaims ‘March for Jesus Day’

Monday, May 10, 1999

Gov. Mike Johan...
Gov. Mike Johanns

To the consternation of minority religious groups and civil rights organizations, the governor of Nebraska has proclaimed May 22 as “March for Jesus Day.”

Republican Gov. Mike Johanns signed a proclamation last week that sets the date and states that “March for Jesus Day was established as a time for us to join together as a people and pay homage to our divine authority and live ever mindful of the many freedoms we have enjoyed and ever thankful for the many blessings we have received.”

The governor signed the proclamation at the urging of a nonprofit group based in Austin, Texas, called March for Jesus USA. According to the group's mission statement, the March for Jesus Day is intended to bring “Christians of every tradition, age, and color into the streets on one day each year to celebrate what Jesus has done and to ask God's blessing on our cities.” Last year the group persuaded the governors of New York, North Carolina, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas to sign March for Jesus Day proclamations.

Johanns' endorsement of March for Jesus Day has caught the attention of People for the American Way, a national civil rights group based in Washington, D.C., and the Nebraska American Civil Liberties Union. Both groups have described the governor's action as unconstitutional.

“There is a perception that when government officials sign these types of proclamations they are providing a stamp of approval or an endorsement of religion,” Matt LeMieux, executive director of the Nebraska ACLU, said. “In the future, as the governor continues to offend more and more Nebraskans, then the possibility of going into court is going to get much greater.”

LeMieux also said that when the governor was asked last week if he would sign a proclamation in support of Wiccans, who believe in benevolent witchcraft, he responded that he would not sign something he did not personally believe in.

According to March for Jesus USA, millions of people throughout the country will gather in various cities to join in marches for Jesus this May. Last year 31,000 gathered for a march through Jacksonville, Fla., the group said. According to the group's “Steps to Organizing a March for Jesus,” a march coordinator must be involved in a local church, appointed by a pastor, “sent out with the blessing” of the pastor, and in “good reputation in the community and among churches.”

Carole Shields, president of People for the American Way, sent a letter to Johanns in late April in which she reminded the governor of his duty to uphold the Constitution, urging him not sign the proclamation.

“There can be no question that your issuance of a 'March for Jesus Day' proclamation would violate the neutrality toward religion that is required of your office,” Shields wrote. “In addition such an action would unconstitutionally endorse Christianity over other religions, sending the impermissible message to Nebraskans of other faiths or of no faith that their beliefs are disfavored by the government.”

Last November a federal judge in Arizona said that a “Bible Week” proclamation issued by the governor “certainly has the [indication] of being religious and purposely not secular. Last month, Arizona Republican Gov. Jane Hull announced she would no longer issue such proclamations.