Halt religious coronavirus proclamations, FFRF urges Utah governor

Gary Herbert

The Utah governor should stop making coronavirus-related religious proclamations that are counterproductive as well as unconstitutional, the Freedom From Religion Foundation asserts.

Gov. Gary Herbert issued an official proclamation declaring March 20-22 as a “Weekend of Prayer and Service in Utah” as an apparent method for coping with the coronavirus scourge. He declared:

We all stand in great need of comfort during these times of fear and uncertainty . . . I believe that such comfort can be found as we feel the guiding hand of God in our lives . . . I invite all Utahns to join me in prayer for guidance, comfort, patience, and healing as we face the COVID-19 pandemic . . . we will get through these hard times, particularly as we come together as a community, and we hold to our faith in God.

FFRF agrees that “we all stand in great need of comfort” now, but stresses that Herbert’s message excludes many citizens who do not believe in a deity that answers prayer.

“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution wisely prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages,” FFRF Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor write to the governor. “The Supreme Court has said time and again that the ‘First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’ By issuing a proclamation calling on Utah citizens to pray, you abridge your duty to remain neutral and to respect the freedom of conscience of all your citizens.”

Even if Herbert’s proclamation includes those of non-Mormon or non-Christian faiths, it still excludes those of no religious background, FFRF points out. Nonreligious Americans make up the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification, with more than one in four Americans currently identifying as religiously unaffiliated. A prayer proclamation signals to such Utahns “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,” to quote the U.S. Supreme Court.

The separation between state and church is one of the most fundamental principles of our system of government, FFRF emphasizes. The Supreme Court has specifically stated: “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.” When the government urges its citizens to pray, reasonable citizens will interpret this as government endorsement of religion.

The promotion of prayer by elected officials raises the distasteful appearance of political pandering to appeal to or appease a vocal religious constituency. As the state’s highest elected official, Herbert is charged with great responsibility and has been given significant trust by citizens, including those citizens who may not share his personal religious viewpoints.

“Gov. Herbert should leave prayer as a private matter for private citizens and dedicate his exertions to concrete measures for fighting the epidemic,” says Dan Barker, FFRF co-president.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 31,000 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.

Photo by 32ATPs under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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