The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a 16,600-member state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., filed a federal lawsuit this morning in the Southern District Court of Texas in Houston seeking to block Texas Gov. Rick Perry from continued association with the evangelical Christian prayer rally he initiated at Reliant Stadium in Houston to take place on Aug. 6.
A judge will be assigned in about two days.
On behalf of its 700 Texas members, FFRF, as well as five of its Houston members — Kay Staley, Scott Weitzenhoffer, Wilfred Lyon, Stacie Gonzalez and Kristin Ames — are asking the federal court to declare unconstitutional Perry’s initiation, organization, promotion and participation in the Aug. 6 prayer event. A proposed order to restrain Perry’s continuing involvement in the prayer rally will be filed after a hearing date is set.
FFRF previously called on Perry to disassociate from the prayer conclave and rescind his prayer proclamation calling Aug. 6 a “Day of Prayer and Fasting for our Nation’s Challenges.” “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a National in Crisis,” was initiated by Perry. The prayer rally spokesman is Eric Bearse, Gov. Perry’s former communications director.
The website for The Response, linked from the governor’s official website, http://www.governor.state.tx.us, conveys Gov. Perry’s hope that the prayer rally will provide divine guidance to the nation, and Perry’s videotaped invitation to join him on Aug. 6 to turn to Jesus and ask for God’s forgiveness. The homepage bears Perry’s open invitation as governor to “fellow Americans” to join him and other “praying people” in “asking God’s forgiveness, wisdom and provision for our state and nation. There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees.”
The legal complaint notes the plaintiffs are “nonbelievers who support the free exercise of religion, but strongly oppose the governmental establishment and endorsement of religion, including prayer and fasting, which are not only an ineffectual use of time and government resources, but which can be harmful or counterproductive as a substitute for reasoned action.”
Perry is working “hand-in-glove” with the American Family Association to put on and promote the prayer rally. The AFA “promotes a rabid evangelical Christian agenda that is hostile to nonbelievers, nonChristians and other protected groups, such as gays and lesbians,” asserts FFRF.
Perry’s actions as governor give “official recognition” to a devotional event, endorse religion, have no secular rationale, and seek to encourage citizens to pray and nonChristians to convert to Christianity.
These actions violate the Establishment Clause by “giving the appearance that the government prefers evangelical Christian religious beliefs over other religious beliefs and non-beliefs, including by aligning and partnering with the American Family Association, a virulent, discriminatory and evangelical Christian organization known for its intolerance.”
Such actions send an impermissible “message that believers in religion are political insiders — and nonbelievers are political outsiders.” FFRF notes that Perry’s actions as governor endorsing evangelical Christianity and prayer place FFRF at a competitive disadvantage. The power of government, once aligned with religion, to chill dissent is demonstrated by the fact that at least one major billboard company has denied FFRF the opportunity to even purchase advertising space anywhere in Houston that is specifically critical of the prayer rally and Perry’s role in it.
The federal lawsuit seeks to declare Perry’s participation in the prayer rally and his proclamation unconstitutional, to enjoin his further involvement, and to order corrective action. FFRF seeks to stop further publication of the proclamation, to declare the use of the official state seal of Texas unconstitutional, to order the governor to withdraw permission for the AFA to use his written and videotaped promotions (“Gov. Perry’s Invitation Video”) and radio recordings at their website, to remove links from the governor’s website, as well as enjoining Perry from issuing and disseminating further Day of Prayer proclamations or designations.
“We always say ‘Beware prayer by pious politicians,’ ” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, who co-directs FFRF with husband Dan Barker, a former evangelical minister who is now an atheist. “Nothing fails like prayer. It’s the ultimate political cop-out.”
“The answers for America’s problems won’t be found on our knees or in heaven, but by using our brains, our reason and in compassionate action,” adds Barker, author of Godless. “Gov. Perry’s distasteful use of his civil office to plan and dictate a religious course of action to ‘all citizens’ is deeply offensive to many citizens, as well as to our secular form of government.”
The lawsuit is being handled by FFRF litigation attorney Richard L. Bolton, Madison, Wis., with local counsel Randall L. Kallinen. The case number of Staley, et. al. v. Perry is 4:11-cv-02585.
FFRF, which incorporated as an educational group in 1978 and is now the nation’s largest explicitly atheist/agnostic membership group, has taken the lead in challenging the National Day of Prayer. It has brought more than 50 lawsuits, winning many significant victories in and out of court to keep religion out of government.
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