Texas governor’s call to prayer is legal, but troubling

Monday, June 13, 2011

Editor’s note: This commentary originally appeared June 10 on The Washington Post’s website. Reprinted by permission.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s call to prayer may not be unconstitutional, but it raises serious questions about the governor’s commitment to represent all Texans. Unlike most “prayer proclamations” by government officials — a staple of political pandering in many parts of the country — Perry’s prayer plan includes co-hosting a major Christian worship event to be held in a Houston stadium on August 6.

Described by organizers as a “non-denominational, apolitical, Christian prayer meeting,” the gathering is being organized and funded by the American Family Association (AFA), a controversial conservative Christian advocacy group.

The governor is doing more than merely participating in the daylong prayer rally: He is described by organizers as “the initiator” — and listed first on the roster of “leaders.”

In his official prayer proclamation, the governor invites his “fellow Texans” to join him at the stadium to pray for “unity and righteousness.” But on the event’s website, he makes it clear that only those who pray in the name of Jesus (and accept the AFA statement of faith) are welcome:

“As a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles, and thank Him for the blessings of freedom,” reads a statement from Perry.

Perry doesn’t explain how an event that excludes people of other faiths and of no faith will create “unity” in what is now the most religiously diverse nation on Earth.

Perry has also invited all of the nation’s governors to join him for Christian prayers in Houston on Aug. 6. But just as all “fellow Texans” are not evangelical Christians, neither do all governors share Perry’s Christian faith.

Of course, Gov. Perry, like every American, is free to pray and worship as his conscience dictates. And as governor, he may proclaim days of prayer and fasting — as long as the proclamation is a mere recognition of the right of people to pray and not a state mandate.

But as governor of Texas, Perry has a civic obligation to represent all citizens of the state — not just those who share his Christian faith. What message does he send to the many thousands of Texans of other faiths — and those with no religious affiliation — when, as governor, he initiates and leads a Christian prayer rally for “national unity”? Can they really trust him to represent their interests — and treat their beliefs with fairness and respect?

Perry’s “call to prayer” may be legal, but that doesn’t make it right.

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