The atheist activist group American Humanist Association, with the support of other activist organizations, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, sent a stern warning to Branstad decrying an executive proclamation he sent out in April praising the Bible and encouraging Iowans to participate in the Iowa 99 County Bible Reading Marathon.
Branstad's April 26 proclamation (image below) encourages citizens to read the Bible, which he praises as "essential to prepare us to be the people God wants us to be and to accomplish the purpose for which we are created." He describes the Bible as "the one true revelation from God, showing the way of Salvation, Truth and Life," the reading of which "renews the mind of men." The proclamation also cites famous American leaders, including Ronald Reagan and Andrew Jackson, who have similarly recognized the Bible's importance. It ends by encouraging "all Iowans" to join in the historic Iowa 99 County Bible Reading Marathon (June 30 - July 3).
While many have argued that the proclamation is perfectly constitutional and is similar to endorsements of religious events and sentiments by political leaders throughout American history, including many presidents, the atheist groups sharply disagree, even to the point of considering taking legal action.
"The governor’s endorsement of the Bible violates our nation’s founding principle of the separation of religion and government," said AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt in a statement. "In exalting Christianity above all other religious and nonreligious worldviews, the governor is discriminating against non-Christian citizens and infringing upon their right to be free from religious coercion by the state."
The AHA's letter to Branstad warned him not to promote Christianity publicly again and slammed his "outrageous" proclamation:
The proclamation, which contains statements such as the declaration that "all Scripture is essential to prepare us to be the people God wants us to be," as well as a number of historical claims that are biased and inaccurate, is an outrageous violation of church-state separation.
Your divisive proclamation can only be understood as pandering to a certain religious demographic while offending those who hold differing religious views.
"The governor’s proclamation is frankly outrageous and embarrassing, and inconsistent with our core American and Iowan principles of inclusion and respect of all its people of all faiths, as well as those who are not religious,” said ACLU Legal Director Rita Bettis Tuesday. "Our U.S. and Iowa state constitutions protect from precisely this sort of government overreaching and endorsement of a particular faith."
"Can you imagine the uproar if the governor used state resources to encourage people to go to a ‘God is Dead’ rally or a vigil to review how divisive religion is?" Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor told the Des Moines Register. "Everyone can see how inappropriate that would be. This is exactly the same type of violation."
So is Branstad's encouraging of Iowans to read the Bible really unconstitutional? The Lemon Test (from Lemon v.Kurtzman) developed three questions designed to demonstrate whether or not a political action violates the First Amendment:
- Does the government action have a secular purpose?
- Does the government action have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion?
- Does the government action foster an excessive entanglement between government and religion?
If an act violates any of the questions, it can be deemed illegal. But as the Des Moines Register notes, the proclamation issued by Branstad (who has issued similar endorsements for Muslim Recognition Days and other prayer events) falls right in line with other political leaders' support of religious activities:
Ben Hammes, a spokesman for Branstad, noted that a challenge to a Colorado prayer proclamation was rejected in 2014 by that state’s supreme court, which concluded that people who objected didn’t suffer harm and had no grounds to sue.
Here's an image of the Iowa 99 County Bible Reading Marathon proclamation: