Ohio mayor rescinds Bible year proclamation after state ACLU objects

Tuesday, January 5, 1999

Less than a month after anointing 1999 “The Year of the Bible,” an Ohio mayor has rescinded the proclamation in the face of a legal threat by a state civil rights group.

In early December, Mayor Dick Church Jr. of Miamisburg, a suburb of Dayton, issued the Bible year proclamation, stating that “renewing our knowledge and faith in God through the Holy Scripture, the Bible, can strengthen us as a nation and as a people.”

Moreover, Church called on his constituents to “read through the New Testament for at least five minutes daily,” because of “our need to study and apply the teachings of the Holy Scriptures to our lives and civil conduct.”

Toward December's end, the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the mayor warning that it would sue, challenging the proclamation as a violation of the separation of church and state.

In a press conference late last week the mayor retracted the proclamation, saying it was “the hardest decision I (have) made in my life.”

With the mayor's statement rescinding the proclamation was a letter from the town's law director.

“While I do not agree that this proclamation is 'undeniably unconstitutional and inappropriate action by a governmental official,' I do believe that the language used in the proclamation raises serious First Amendment issues that could only be resolved through litigation,” K. Philip Callahan wrote.

Also Callahan said the city could incur a “substantial expense” in defending the proclamation in court.

Scott Greenwood, the Ohio ACLU's general counsel, said the proclamation was overtly unconstitutional and that he believed the situation was a “rare case, when our chance of success” was 100%.

“I'm gratified the mayor took the right course in rescinding the proclamation,” Greenwood said. “The mayor did so, however, only after figuring out he had to. When government institutions involve themselves with religious beliefs and worship they inevitably alienate certain segments of their population – as well as the Bill of Rights.”

Greenwood said the National Bible Association, a New York-based, nonprofit group, had encouraged the mayor to declare Bible year. The group has been encouraging politicians all over the country to issue similar proclamations.

Late last year, the group encouraged an Arizona mayor and its governor to issue “Bible Week” proclamations for the week of Nov. 23. After the ACLU of Arizona filed separate lawsuits against the mayor and the governor, a federal judge barred the mayor from issuing the proclamation and issued a temporary order calling the governor's proclamation unconstitutional.

Steve Montoya, the attorney representing the Arizona ACLU, said that the temporary order against Republican Gov. Jane Hull's proclamation is still in effect and that the next hearing before U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver is set for June 11. Hull has vowed to fight the federal judge's order, calling the proclamation a constitutional government acknowledgment of religion.