Gov. Rick Perry's official proclamation making today "A Day of Prayer and Fasting for Our Nation in Texas" and his official promotion of "The Response," a Christian prayer rally at Reliant Stadium, has provided a teachable moment for us at the Anti-Defamation League.
It's an opportunity to remind ourselves and others of the importance of prayer — of everybody's right to pray the way he or she wants to — and of how the First Amendment's insistence on the separation of church and state supports that freedom to pray.
With that in mind, ADL recently sponsored an educational seminar on the history of the First Amendment, in cooperation with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Texas Freedom Network and the Jewish Community Center of Houston.
Titled "Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and the Origins of Religious Freedom, " the program, presented by attorney and First Amendment scholar David Furlow, looked at how the Founding Fathers sought to secure religious freedom for every citizen by keeping government out of religion and religion out of government.
Furlow started his discussion by supporting the governor's right to pray: "Gov. Perry has a clear First Amendment right to call and to attend a private prayer meeting. That is a fundamental right as a private citizen."
It is a right ADL supports wholeheartedly. But problems arise when the governor publicly and through his official governmental position calls a prayer meeting and asks others to join him there, especially when that prayer meeting is clearly of one faith.
Some might say the governor is entitled to use his stature as a public official to urge others to attend a Christian prayer rally, maintaining this is a Christian nation.
But Furlow disproved that. He pointed out that the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated under George Washington's administration, unanimously ratified by the Fifth U.S. Congress and signed by President John Adams in 1797, says "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."
Furlow then documented that the authors of the Constitution strongly believed in the separation of church and state. When the Danbury Baptists asked Thomas Jefferson to explain the First Amendment to them in 1802, Jefferson wrote: "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."
Texas is an extremely diverse state, and we live in a diverse country. When Gov. Perry officially says as an elected leader the only way we can solve our problems is "to pray and fast like Jesus did," he's insensitive to that diversity.
Furthermore, he demonstrates a dangerous disregard for the separation of church and state that allows all Americans as individuals to pray to their personal God, or to choose not to pray at all.
ADL supports the right to pray. And ADL supports religious freedom for everybody. The founders knew the best way to protect those rights was to make sure the elected, representative and democratic government would not impose one religion over another, or any religion at all.
Gov. Perry might not get it, but we're pretty sure most Americans do.