Americans United for Separation of Church and State

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Church State Issues

Atheist group sues governor over prayer day

Dec 10, 2011

By: Ginger Rough

Arizona Republic

Gov. Jan Brewer is being sued for issuing proclamations in support of an Arizona Day of Prayer.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer doesn't believe in separation of church and state The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in federal court, alleges that Brewer's actions were unconstitutional because they violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from establishing a state religion. The lawsuit seeks an injunction preventing the governor from issuing similar proclamations in the future.

"This is not about money. This is about trying to get the right thing done," said Marc Victor, a Chandler attorney who brought the suit on behalf of three Maricopa County residents and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics.

Victor said his clients believe it is "completely inappropriate for the governor to be declaring days of prayer" in her official capacity as the state's chief executive. But he added, "We are just as much in favor of people exercising their right to pray as we are equally in favor of keeping government out of everyone else's business."Brewer has declared an Arizona Day of Prayer twice since assuming the governor's seat two years ago. Both instances coincided with the National Day of Prayer, which is also facing a legal challenge from the same organization. In addition, Brewer proclaimed a day of prayer for the budget on Jan. 17, 2010, according to the lawsuit.

Matthew Benson, Brewer's spokesman, said Wednesday that her office had not yet seen the suit, but would vigorously defend it.

"Public calls to prayer are an honored American tradition dating back to George Washington," Benson said, adding that the call to prayer for the budget was appropriate. "Absolutely, I think in these days of fiscal crisis, there is nothing wrong with Arizonans, if they choose, praying for the wisdom to solve the problems facing the state."

Congress established the National Day of Prayer in1952 and in 1988 set the first Thursday in May as the day for presidents to issue prayer-related proclamations.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against the federal government in late 2008, saying the day violated the separation of church and state.

Last spring, a federal district judge in Wisconsin handed the group a court victory when she ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. The case is currently being appealed, and prayer related events are still being held as the case works its way through the courts.

Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative non-profit advocacy group, called the lawsuit against Brewer "frivolous," and said days of prayer are a part of the nation's history.

"Our founding fathers opened their meetings with prayer - there is a long-standing tradition of religious invocation (in this country), and this is a day that goes to our nation's foundation and heritage," said Herrod, who added that her group would closely monitor the lawsuit against Brewer.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation also has a case pending against former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter over his decision to proclaim a day of prayer in that state in 2008. A judge has dismissed the organization's arguments, but the group is appealing, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the organization's co-president.