What was our governor thinking? – First Amendment scholar addresses Perry’s prayer rally

By DENA MARKS

Printed in the Houston Jewish Herald-Voice on Thu, Aug 04, 2011

America’s Founding Fathers wouldn’t have approved of Gov. Rick Perry’s official call for a day of prayer and fasting, and for others to join him at a Christian prayer rally in Reliant Stadium on Aug. 6, according to Houston attorney and First Amendment scholar David Furlow.  On Tuesday, July 26, during two presentations, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, Furlow delved into the subject of the governor’s use of his office to initiate the prayer call. He framed the governor’s promotion of religion – through a look at the history of the First Amendment – in his presentation, “Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, and First Amendment Religious Freedom.”

Several dozen clergy attended the first of two Houston programs at a breakfast meeting; approximately 350 people attended a public program that evening at the Jewish Community Center, which was co-sponsored by the JCC, Texas Freedom Network and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Furlow said Gov. Perry, as a private citizen, had a clear First Amendment right to call and to attend a prayer rally. However, he questioned his use of his government website, government letterhead and government employees to support that call. He did so in the context of the birth of the First Amendment, an amendment designed to support religious freedom for all citizens by keeping government out of religion.

U.S. not founded as a Christian nation

The attorney demonstrated how this country’s founders conveyed, in actions and in written word, their feelings about the dangers of state-sponsored religion, and their conviction that U.S. leaders should separate their role in government from their personal faith. He also quoted documents that maintained the country was not founded on the Christian religion – and in fact, the government was designed to support freedom to worship for everybody.

Among the sources Furlow provided from the Founding Fathers were statements supporting church-state separation, found in letters from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jefferson wrote in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

Furlow also quoted Madison in a letter to Edward Livingston: “We are teaching the world the great truth that Governments do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion Flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government.”

The presentation also included writings of early American presidents, expressing their concern about government leaders making official religious proclamations and pronouncements. He again quoted Madison: “The [prayer proclamations] seem to imply and certainly nourish the idea of a national religion.” A national religion and its consequences were part of what early Americans came here to escape, and Madison and others made that very clear.

Furlow said he was not trying to “condemn or condone, but to merely consider” the actions of Gov. Perry, in the context of the origins of the First Amendment. His concluding remarks – asking questions about “The Price of Official Prayer Proclamations” – pointed toward the governor’s official use of his website and state employees to invite people to a Christian prayer rally. “Do state employees operate the Office of the Governor website? Who pays their salaries?” Furlow asked. “Did state employees type letters inviting other governors to attend? Who pays their salaries? Who pays for the governor’s DPS Security Detail at the Aug. 6, 2011, rally?” Furlow asked.

Many who attended said they came away with a new understanding and appreciation for the separation of church and state, and why it was important. One attendee wrote that the program was “fabulous, like a seven-course meal!”

The moderator for the public program, ADL board member and National ADL Legal Affairs Committee chair Mark Finkelstein took questions from the audience. ADL Regional Board chair Janet Pozmantier had welcomed attendees, and ADL Shana Glass Leadership Institute graduate Eugene Tunitsky had introduced the speaker.

For more information on the ADL’s position on these matters, go to ADL’s website, adl.org/southwest.

Dena Marks is an associate director of the Southwest Regional office of the ADL.