At least three groups — ACLU of Iowa, Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, and Freedom From Religion Foundation — are considering filing suit against Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad because he signed a proclamation endorsing a Bible-reading marathon.
They see it as a clear violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.
The Iowa Prayer Caucus, the National Governors’ Prayer Team and the United States Prayer Council have organized Bible-marathon/prayer events that will be held in front of each of the state’s 99 county courthouses from June 30 to July 3.
“Iowa Bible Reading Marathon is an Appeal to Heaven through the living Word of God being read out loud to change the atmosphere in Iowa and our Nation,” according to the Iowa Bible Reading Marathon Facebook page.
This won’t be the first time the Bible has been read on government property in Iowa. Volunteers spent 80 hours reading the Bible aloud — from Genesis through Revelation — inside the Iowa Capitol Rotunda on Jan. 4.
If push comes to shove, and a lawsuit is filed, First Liberty Institute has promised to have Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s back, and the Republican is counting on their support.
Hiram Sasser, First Liberty Institute director of strategic litigation, told PJM a lawsuit, if it is filed, wouldn’t go far because there is so much legal precedent on the governor’s side.
Branstad said it is routine for politicians to endorse the idea of prayer. So, backing the marathon seemed like a no-brainer to him.
“I get hundreds of requests for proclamations and for a lot of good causes,” KMEG-TV reported Branstad told reporters during his weekly press conference June 6.
“You know, you can go back to the Declaration of Independence, and all of the leadership of this country from the very beginning have supported religious freedom,” he added.
Sasser said there is just not legal basis for litigating a suit against Branstad, and the proclamation he signed “is such a historically routed tradition that it is beyond judicial question.”
He said there is just no legal basis for litigating a suit against Branstad.
“In all the cases that have addressed these types of proclamations, the courts have routinely just thrown them out because there’s no injury to anyone,” Sasser said. “No one has any standing to sue the governor over anything.”
Sasser also said he found it hard to believe that a politician like Gov. Branstad was facing this kind of blowback over signing a seemingly innocuous proclamation.
“He has issued a lot of diverse proclamations,” said Sasser. “I found it surprising that anyone would be bothering this particular governor, because of his ecumenical and diverse approach to these proclamations.”
However, the proclamation did more than just endorse the idea of the 99-county marathon. It also declared that it would be a good idea for all Iowans to “read their Bibles each year until the Lord comes.”
That is a huge red flag to Veronica Fowler, the communications director for the ACLU of Iowa. She told KMEG-TV that by encouraging people to read their Bibles every day “until the Lord comes,” Gov. Branstad crossed the line from championing a worthy cause to endorsing a particular religion.
“We feel that the governor’s proclamation is embarrassing and outrageous and it goes against our core values as Iowans and as Americans for inclusion and respect for all religious faiths and including those who have no religious faiths,” Fowler said.
Fowler said the ACLU is thinking about filing suit against Branstad, but declined to speculate on when or even if court action was imminent.
However, even if the ACLU declines to marshal its attorneys to the cause, there are two other groups that might push open the court house doors — the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, the co-president of Freedom From Religion, said government should be neutral toward religion.
“Can you imagine the uproar if the governor used state resources to encourage people to go to a ‘God is Dead’ rally?” she told the Des Moines Register. “Or how about a vigil to review how divisive religion is?”
Jason Bennell, the press officer of the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, said there were three questions that needed to be answered before court action could proceed. Think of it as an atheist’s litmus test of government overreach in the separation of church and state.
“Does his proclamation serve a secular purpose? Does it unnecessarily entangle religion and government? Does it advance religion over irreligion from the government? It violates all three of those,” said Bennell.
Bennell can raise all the litmus tests he wants, but to Branstad’s mind this comes down to a litmus test of religious freedom, something that he considers to be fundamental to the American way of life.
“There’s a difference between endorsing a specific religion and just encouraging people to pray, which encompasses virtually all religions,” said Branstad. “So I can’t see why anybody would want to object to people having the opportunity to pray.”