Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Latest Church-State Divide: Bible Week PUBLIC RELIGION

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Latest Church-State Divide: Bible Week PUBLIC RELIGION

Article excerpt

A sleepy Phoenix suburb is the unlikely setting for America's latest uproar over drawing the line of separation between church and state.

In a steely-eyed standoff, the mayor of Gilbert and the American Civil Liberties Union are at odds over whether the town can declare this week as National Bible Week.

It's a largely symbolic act - one embraced each year by about 30 governors and 500 mayors nationwide. But it's also a tradition that many are being forced to rethink - to the chagrin of the National Bible Association, which promotes the annual event. For now, at least, the ACLU holds the upper hand. Last week, a federal judge barred Gilbert's mayor from declaring Bible Week - and punctuated that ruling with a separate one on Friday declaring unconstitutional a similar proclamation by Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull (R). The brouhaha in Arizona underscores the ambiguity that surrounds church-state law in general. Legal experts say the confusion has only intensified as the courts, which have long dealt with cases concerning religion and public schools, are increasingly grappling with cases involving city and state government. "It is the subject of endless debate," says Charles Hinkle, co- chair of the American Bar Association's First Amendment Rights Committee and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. "The {Constitution's} establishment clause is rather vague and confusing," he explains, referring to language that prohibits Congress from enacting law "respecting an establishment of religion." Several recent court rulings send such mixed messages that lawmakers may well find themselves teetering atop the church-state wall. Among these are the following. In Ohio, a federal court allowed the quote "With God All Things Are Possible" to remain over the statehouse's entrance. In Denver, a US appeals court rejected a lawsuit by a citizen who fought his local city council over public prayer. He sought the right to begin a city meeting with the prayer, "Our Mother, who art in heaven." A federal appeals court allowed Hawaii state employees to observe Good Friday, a religious day. Earlier, a Good Friday school holiday in Illinois was struck down as unconstitutional by a different federal appeals court. Fighting the rulings While the court has barred Arizona and the town of Gilbert from proclaiming Bible Week, Governor Hull and Mayor Cynthia Dunham vow to fight the decisions. A Dec. 11 hearing is set for the Gilbert case. The proclamations' wording follows the suggestions of the National Bible Association, a New York-based nonprofit group that promotes the event. The proclamations call the Bible "the foundational document of the Judeo-Christian principles upon which our Nation was conceived," and a source of inspiration and comfort for millions of Americans. …

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