Idaho Statesman 11-20-98 9A

ACLU files suit to protest Bible Week

Proclamation in Arizona sets off constitutional debate

by Jerry Nachtigal

The Associated PRess

PHOENIX – When Gov. Jane Hull issued proclamations observing Muslim holy days, Israel’s 50th anniversary and an international day of prayer, nary a peep of protest was heard.

But when Hull proclaimed next week as Bible Week in Arizona, the American Civil Liberties Union declared the proclamation offensive to non-Christians and asked her to rescind it.

She refused, so the civil rights group sued the governor Thursday in U.S. District Court to force the decree off the books. A hearing was not immediately scheduled.

The Bible Week proclamation is an affront to some Arizonans who believe the Constitution prohibits the government from participating in religious activities – including a seemingly innocent ceremonial proclamation, said Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the ACLU in Arizona.

"They want their spiritual guidance from their church, their synagogue, their mosque, from their shaman, from their guru, but not the government," she said.

Thomas May, president of the National Bible Association, said National Bible Week isn’t meant to convert anyone to Christianity. It’s an annual tribute to a book that has inspired people of all faiths and influenced art, music, literature and laws, he said.

Bible Week history

For six decades, presidents have signed proclamations designating the week of Nov. 22-29 as National Bible Week and served as honorary chairmen of the event, he said. This year, 27 governors and more than 400 mayors issued Bible Week proclamations.

The Bible Association is made up of businessmen and women – no clergy members – who are Jewish, Mormon, Catholic, mainline Protestant, Christian Scientist and evangelical Christian who want people to read the Bible, May said.

"We simply say, Gallup tells us there are Bibles in 90 percent of American homes but only about 15 percent read it; therefore, since the all-time best seller has a track record of doing so many good things for people, just pick it up and read it," May said.

The ACLU last week persuaded a federal judge to issue a restraining order preventing Gilbert, a Phoenix suburb, from proclaiming Bible Week for the fifth straight year. Eisenberg said the ACLU fought the decree after receiving complaints from several residents last year.

Hull, who signed the state proclamation before the controversy erupted in Gilbert, said Thursday she stands by her decision to issue the proclamation.

"My proclamation acknowledges the Bible, in much the same way that another of my proclamations acknowledges the Muslim holy observance of Ramadan," she said. "I am confident that when the court examines the proclamation, it will be upheld as constitutional."

However, Hull has said she will consider a "religious scriptures week" next year instead of focusing only on the Bible.

Rabbi Robert Kravitz of the American Jewish Committee said government has no business issuing religious proclamations. He credited the dispute with "raising the issue of church and state separation into public debate where it needs to be."

Controversy benefactors

But the American Center for Law and Justice says Bible Week doesn’t violate the Constitution. The Virginia-based legal organization, founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, will represent Gilbert for free at a Dec. 11 court hearing.

"The proclamation is no different than previous proclamations commemorating Thanksgiving and National Day of Prayer. These are simply time-honored traditions and are all constitutionally protected forms of free speech," attorney Gary McCaleb said.

The controversy has had an unintended benefit for the New York City-based National Bible Association. "You beat your head against the wall for years trying to get Bible Week some national press and then suddenly we are in the news," May said. "We think it’s great that people are hearing about Bible Week."