Church-state separation, LGBT-rights groups respond to Gov. Perry’s ‘The Response’
National church-state separation and LGBT-rights organizations are pushing back in response to Gov. Rick Perry’s recent, very public call for prayer and fasting, urging governors across the country to reject their invitations to the August event they describe as an affront to non-Christians and the LGBT community, as a major event donor is linked to anti-gay sentiments.
Hosted by Perry and a string of conservative Christian activists, the all-day prayer summit called, “The Response: A Call to Prayer for a Nation in Crisis,” is set to take place at Reliant Stadium in Houston on Aug. 6. It seeks to remedy the nation’s economic, security and environment problems through “non-denominational, apolitical, Christian prayer.” Several groups charge that the event, laden with overt Christian messages and direct Biblical references, blurs the line between government and religion.
“The whole arrangement clearly violates the spirit and idea of separation of church and state,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Government officials shouldn’t be in the business of calling on people to fast and pray; they should be working on how to fix our roads. They should leave prayer to the clergy of the state.
“This has the smack of a political agenda, whether it directly involves Gov. Perry’s future plans or not, it positions him to be seen as a quasi-religious figure,” said Lynn, who also serves as both an attorney and minister of the United Church of Christ. “I was distraught to note the materials were Christian-only. They say they want every background, but it is exclusionary in nature. It is odd that the governor wants to be associated with that in such a direct and obvious way.”
Perry spokesperson Lucy Nashed said the governor has not excluded himself from participating in a number of events from various faith traditions in the past. He has been a “firm believer in the power of prayer,” issuing prayer proclamations for the safety of U.S. troops to rainfall during severe drought and wildfires. The event, said Nashed, is Christian-based, but the governor has invited, “all faiths to pray however they see fit.”
In April 2008, the Austin American-Statesman reported on Perry’s plans to host a private dinner “to honor the Aga Khan, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad celebrating his 50th year as the spiritual leader of a Muslim sect.”
The Secular Coalition for America, a national lobby for secular and nontheistic Americans, calls the upcoming prayer summit a “divisive, extremist-sponsored event,” that is insulting to the millions of citizens who practice religions other than evangelical Christianity. The group is mobilizing residents in other states through an online petition asking their governors to forgo the event. Texans can send a letter directly to Perry.
“The last thing our officials should do in times of national struggle is promote a divisive religious event that proposes no real solutions to our country’s real-world problems,” said the coalition’s Executive Director Sean Faircloth in a statement. “Our nation’s governors represent Americans of all beliefs, not simply Christians. We urge all elected officials to reject Governor Perry’s invitation to attend this explicitly Christian platform for evangelical and theocratic grandstanding that does nothing to offer substantive solutions to our country’s problems. By its own description, this event privileges Christianity over other religions and beliefs.”
The Reverend C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a national coalition representing 75 faith traditions working to combat extremism, said the governor’s event “raises serious concerns about his commitment to the boundaries between religion and government.” By promoting a sectarian event, Perry has “crossed a line” that Constitution framers did not want crossed for the good of both religion and government, said Gaddy in a news release.
“It has been my experience that when elected leaders invoke religion in this way, it almost always has more to do with furthering a political agenda than a religious one,” he said. “At the very least, I would hope that Governor Perry publicly confirms that no government funds or resources are now or will be in the future used to further this spiritual rally.”
Nahsed said no taxpayer funds will be used to finance the prayer event.
The Houston GLBT Political Caucus is denouncing the governor’s partnership with co-host, the American Family Association, a conservative Christian organization classified as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center for promoting false, anti-gay propaganda, such as linking homosexuality with the cause of the Holocaust. Houston Press reports:
“AFA is a recognized hate group. Its primary existence is to demonize GLBT Americans and oppose equality.” said Caucus president Noel Freeman. “It is abhorrent that Governor Perry would choose to kickoff his presidential ambitions in partnership with a hate group that refers to us as Nazis, claims the Holocaust was caused by the GLBT community, and supports the eradication of people living with HIV.”
A protest outside Reliant Stadium on the day of the event, organized via Facebook, is in the works. Co-coordinator of the demonstration and Texas State Director for American Atheists, Joe Zamecki, says Perry has “repeatedly and proudly violated church/state separation on several issues.” About 70 people have signed up to join the protest so far.
“I don’t believe that any of the other 49 states’ governors are as devoted to flaunting their disregard for the diversity in their respective states,” said Zamecki, who also helped found Atheists Helping the Homeless. “This is while our state budget is in a mess, public education is failing, and our most popular politicians are riding on a wave of popularity, such that they can easily avoid any responsibility for explaining themselves and their actions to the public. So they don’t. On August 6, we will.”
The Texas Democratic Party also has objected to Perry’s role in the event, as the Texas Independent reported. “It is obvious the Governor is a shameless opportunist whose real priority is whatever furthers his own career ambitions,” said spokeswoman Kirsten Gray.