It's best to check the weather report before praying for snow, the Freedom From Religion Foundation paraphrases Mark Twain as a retort to a silly request by the governor of Utah.
Gov. Gary Herbert recently sent a letter on state of Utah letterhead and signed with his official title in which he asked the "faith community to unite in thanksgiving and prayer during the first week of March 2018." Using the official imprimatur of an office that belongs to "We the People," Herbert asked for citizens to engage in a religious ritual: "As you gather in your places of worship and in your homes during the first week of March, would you please join me in a special prayer?" And then again, using a secular government office, Herbert laid out the prayer that should be said: "I believe we should thank our Creator of the extraordinary blessing that we enjoy as a state. But I would also encourage us to pray that the elements temper on our behalf."
The letter cites a 2012 drought in Utah and notes that "within days of your collective prayers the rains came." However, when Rick Perry, the then-Texas governor, called for a day for prayer to cure a drought in 2011, the state caught fire in late summer. When things go right, believers invariably praise their deity, but when things go wrong, "God" never gets the blame.
"If this is all the Utah governor can do, then his policy is adrift," FFRF Co-President Dan Barker quips.
Many of its nontheistic members living in Utah are affected by the drought crisis, FFRF notes in a letter to Herbert, and its heart goes out to everyone affected. Yet that does not excuse the use of government office to sponsor a religious ritual.
As a private citizen, Herbert may attend any religious function he likes and the church of his choice. But the federal and state Constitutions — and good etiquette — dictate that as governor he may not bless such events or allow his title as governor to be used for any purely religious event or function. It is an inappropriate usurpation of the Governor's Office for the governor himself or herself to proclaim a day of prayer.
As governor, Herbert took an oath of office to uphold the U.S. Constitution, which is a godless and secular document whose only references to religion in government are exclusionary, such as that there can be no religious test for public office, FFRF reminds him. As the U.S. 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."
And Herbert represent not only religious members of his community but atheists and agnostics, as well. Using his official capacity as governor to unabashedly promote a religious ritual such as prayer sends an official and impermissible message of endorsement of religion and of exclusion to many of his constituents.
Pious politicians would do well to remember the bible's edict to "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's" — another way of expressing that state and church should be separate.
"When we elect a governor — the highest state executive — we are not electing a preacher in chief," FFRF notes.
FFRF requests on behalf of its Utah members that in the future the Governor's Office refrain from asking the citizens of Utah to pray.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 32,000 members across the country, including in Utah. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.