Praying for sanity

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In the midst of an historic drought and the resultant wildfires that have spread to all but two of Texas’ 254 counties, many Texans are hoping for rain. Gov. Rick Perry is praying for it.

Last weekend, Perry issued an official proclamation declaring that the three days from Friday, April 22 through Sunday, April 24 were to be designated officially as “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”

“I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal way of life,” read the proclamation, which is available on the governor’s website.

Texas is not the first state to designate official days of prayer for rain. In 2007, Alabama Gov. Bob Riley issued a similar proclamation, and later that same year, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue actually presided over an hour-long religious ceremony to, in the words of Perdue, “very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm.”

That Texas would follow suit this past weekend with a state-sanctioned prayer of its own is unfortunate and leads me to question Perry’s intentions with such a proclamation. Either he’s capitalizing on a natural disaster that has claimed more than 400 homes and the lives of two firefighters to curry favor with religious-minded Texans or he thinks this is actually going to work. Either way, it’s a disconcerting decision.

State-sanctioned prayer, many would agree, is a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” That document and several Supreme Court decisions have formed the basis for the policy of a separation of church and state, a phrase used by Thomas Jefferson.

Of course, the “wall of separation” Jefferson spoke of has not always been so concrete. Several challenges to a secular government have been successful, most notably The National Day of Prayer, which is still held annually on the first Thursday of May. According to the bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1952, it is a day when people are asked to “turn to God in prayer and meditation.”

But just last year, the National Day of Prayer was ruled unconstitutional. In her ruling, Federal District Judge Barbara Crabb stated that “recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic.”

Despite her ruling, the decision was immediately appealed by the Obama administration and overturned two weeks ago on the basis that the plaintiff, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, had no basis to sue because they could not prove injury. In the words of the appellate court, “a feeling of alienation cannot suffice as injury.”

Essentially, the decision was overturned on the basis not that it was wrong but that it should never have been considered in the first place. It’s a technicality and no doubt a politically motivated decision. Who wants to be known as the person who hates religion?

But it is these unpopular decisions that are necessary to preserve the freedoms on which this nation was founded. Let’s dispense with national days of prayer or state-sanctioned rain vigils and instead focus on the business of government, which should be in protecting its citizens and not interfering in their personal lives.

In the meanwhile, time spent praying for rain would be better spent searching out a real solution to this very real problem. While Perry prays for rain, I’ll pray for sanity.