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Letter to President Barack Obama Re: 9/11 Anniversary Prayer Proclamation and Remarks at 9/11 Memo

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September 15, 2011

The Honorable Barack Obama
White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20500

Re: 9/11 Anniversary Prayer Proclamation and Remarks at 9/11 Memorial

Dear Mr. President:

On behalf of our national membership of more than 17,000 freethinkers (atheists, agnostics, secularists, and other skeptics), we are writing to express our extreme dismay at your decision to not only issue an official prayer proclamation for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but also your decision to include references from Scripture in your remarks at the official memorial ceremony in New York City.

As President you represent not only Christians but atheists and agnostics, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, and other minority religious views. Your insertion of your own personal beliefs at the memorial to honor the victims of 9/11 and the issuance of a prayer proclamation in your official capacity unabashedly promotes religion, particularly Christianity, sending an official message of endorsement of Christianity and of exclusion to many Americans.

National Days of Prayer and Remembrance Proclamation

On September 9, 2011, you issued a presidential proclamation —National Days of Prayer and Remembrance — that designated “Friday, September 9 through Sunday, September 11, 2011, as National Days of Prayer and Remembrance.” Through this proclamation, you

“ask[ed] the people of the United States [to] honor and remember the victims of September 11, 2001, and their loved ones through prayer [emphasis added], contemplation, memorial services, the visiting of memorials, the ringing of bells, evening candlelight remembrance vigils, and other appropriate ceremonies and activities.”

Under our secular Constitution, elected officials have neither the moral nor the constitutional authority to dictate to constituents to pray, much less to set aside a day “to pray.” Whether to pray, whether to believe in a god who answers prayer, is an intensely precious and personal decision protected under our First Amendment as a paramount matter of conscience. You, as a private citizen, may pray in remembrance, but the federal Constitution — and good etiquette — dictate that as President you may not exhort citizens to pray.

As the Supreme Court has explained:

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” W. Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 642 (1943)

Remarks at Official Memorial Ceremony in New York City

On Sunday, September 11, 2011, you participated in the official memorial ceremony at the World Trade Center in New York City. Your entire remarks consisted of reading Psalm 46 (from the Protestant New King James Version of the Bible):

"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, even though the Earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea. Though its waters roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling, there's a river whose streams shall make glad the City of God, the holy place of the Tabernacle of the Most High. God is in the midst of her. She shall not be moved. God shall help her just at the break of dawn. The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved. He uttered his voice. The Earth melted. The Lord of Hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge. Come behold the works of the Lord who has made desolations in the Earth. He makes wars cease to the ends of the Earth. He breaks the bough and cuts the spear in two. He burns the chariot in fire. Be still and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations. I will be exalted in the Earths. The Lord of Hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our refuge."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation had previously written New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to thank him for possessing the good judgment and the courage to insist that the city-arranged ceremonies marking the tenth anniversary of the nightmare of 9/11 remain entirely secular. No religious leaders were invited to preach lofty sermons, perform holy rituals, or intone sanctimonious incantations. The event, orchestrated by a secular government, was for all the people, not just believers.

Instead of a narrow and divisive faith-based spectacle, we observed a broader and inclusive human-based commemoration. Poems were read. Secular songs were performed. Even George W. Bush, the champion of faith-based initiatives who likes to quote Jesus, chose to read the words of Abraham Lincoln.

All seemed to be going well, but just when we thought the ceremony would be respectfully inclusive, who should step up to the podium to mar the occasion by reading from the bible? Not a priest, pastor, rabbi or slick megachurch evangelist. It was none other than you, President Obama, the leader of our secular nation, who decided to inject your own personal god into the public proceedings. It was insensitive to the spirit of the occasion. Further, need it be pointed out that the particular bible verse you quoted from was hardly conducive to inspire or comfort the many Americans who do not feel that if a “Lord who has made desolations in the Earth” exists, he would be worthy of worship. Even Rudy Guiliani, who likewise could not resist quoting from the bible, at least chose the entirely secular passage from Ecclesiastes.

The nearly 3,000 victims of 9/11 at the World Trade Center included an international community of persons of diverse beliefs and nonbeliefs, or whose views on religion will never be known. Likewise, their surviving and still mourning friends, family, colleagues and coworkers represent the full gamut of belief and non-belief. No assumptions may be made, in a world in which 20-25% of the population is nontheistic, and in the United States, where more than 15% of the adult population identifies as “nonreligious” and which in fact is the fastest-growing segment by religious identification (American Religious Identification Survey 2008).

One of the great principles of American liberty is the freedom to disagree about religious matters. When you, as President, appear to take sides in the argument, you dishonor not only millions of good citizens who do not share your personal religious, bible-based beliefs, but you also dishonor our Constitution.

Many years ago, a judge sitting on the bench of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, eloquently noted in the prescient Weiss v. District Board:

“There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed.”

Very truly,

Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor

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