DES MOINES, Iowa — Three church-state separation groups are expressing objection to a proclamation issued by the governor of Iowa that urges residents to participate in a statewide Bible reading marathon.
In April, Gov. Terry Branstad signed a proclamation at the state capitol urging participation in a 99 county Bible reading marathon scheduled for June 30 through July 3. The Iowa Prayer Caucus, the National Governor’s Prayer Team and the United States Prayer Council organized the event.
“Whereas all Scripture is essential to prepare us to be the people God wants us to be and to accomplish the purpose for which he created us,” the proclamation reads in part, “and whereas, America, being founded upon biblical principles and Judeo-Christian ethics, as taught in the Bible, paid tribute to the Bible for its important influence upon the development of our nation by many of our great national leaders such as President Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson…”
“Now therefore, I, Terry E. Branstad, governor of the state of Iowa do hereby encourage all Iowans to join in this historic Iowa 99 county Bible reading marathon to take place June 30 through July 3, 2016 in front of all 99 courthouses and furthermore, encourage individuals and families in Iowa to read through the Bible on a daily basis each year until the Lord comes,” it says.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa (ACLU), Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, and the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) are now expressing objection to the proclamation and assert that Branstad’s actions were unconstitutional.
“The governor’s proclamation is frankly outrageous and embarrassing, and inconsistent with our core American and Iowan principles of inclusion and respect of all its people of all faiths, as well as those who are not religious,” asserted Rita Bettis of the ACLU.
“Can you imagine the uproar if the governor used state resources to encourage people to go to a ‘God is Dead’ rally or a vigil to review how divisive religion is? Everyone can see how inappropriate that would be. This is exactly the same type of violation,” Annie Laurie Gaylor of FFRF also told reporters.
However, others state that Branstad’s proclamation is perfectly legal as it mirrors similar declarations made by the nation’s founding fathers.
“Gov. Branstad’s proclamation echoes Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion at the very Constitutional Convention itself that an appeal to God needed to be made for His intervention and that each day of the Convention must begin in prayer,” wrote Greg Baker of the Family Leader in a recent commentary on the matter.
“Or when President Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural address boldly proclaimed that God was judging America for its sins and in order for the Civil War to end, America need to repent. President Lincoln issued numerous proclamations, calling America to days of fasting, prayer, and repentance,” he outlined.
Nathan Oppman, also with the Family Leader, also pointed to similar historical facts.
“In 1774 Congress informally employed the services of the rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia, Jacob Duché, and on July 9, 1776, he was formally elected as the first Congressional chaplain,” he said. “After Duché defected, Congress elected two chaplains from different denominations: William White and George Duffield.”
“This dual nomination demonstrated Congress’ concern that they not favor particular denominations. This practice was formally adopted in 1789 under a joint resolution after the Constitution was approved,” Oppman explained.
“Throughout the Revolutionary period, Congress issued annual proclamations of fasting and thanksgiving, including encouragement to ‘confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease [God’s] righteous displeasure, and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness,'” he also noted.
Oppman said this indicated that “not only was Congress comfortable supporting religion, but they were comfortable supporting the Christian religion in particular” and even directly mentioned Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
“Moreover, in Iowa, governors have long issued religious proclamations. Gov. Kirkwood in 1876 called on Iowans to observe a day of Thanksgiving and specifically referenced Christianity. Gov. Sherman again called for a day of Thanksgiving in 1881,” he explained.
Baker said that the concept of separation of Church and State has been distorted.
“We seem to think it means that pastors cannot speak about government in the church and that the government cannot mention God,” he stated. “The phrase and principle, however, was originally stated and applied to protect Americans and the Church from a national church being founded, much like those in Europe, such as the Church of England. In America, we did not want to require everyone to attend one national church led by the government. Rather, we believed the two should be separate institutions.”
“Not only is Governor Branstad’s proclamation clearly constitutional, but we should thank him for being humble enough to look to a higher power—and not just any higher power, but our Lord Jesus Christ and His word,” Baker said.