Iowa Governor Steps Into A Tangled Web Of Church And State With Proclamation Encouraging Bible Study

by Laurel Raymond –

Bible Sky

Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed a proclamation in April encouraging “all Iowans” to participate in a statewide Bible-reading marathon, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa argues the declaration is unconstitutional.

The ACLU and two other groups, the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers, claim the governor’s proclamation promotes one religion over others and over nonreligion.

“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,” Legal Director of the ACLU of Iowa Rita Bettis told ThinkProgress over email. “Our U.S. and Iowa state constitutions protect from precisely this sort of government overreaching and endorsement of a particular faith.”

“I, Terry E. Branstad, Governor of the State of Iowa, do hereby encourage all Iowans to join this historical 99 County Bible Reading Marathon,” the official proclamation reads, “and furthermore, encourage individuals and families in Iowa to read through the bible on a daily basis each year until the Lord comes.”

The proclamation begins under a banner noting that it is “In the name and by the authority of the state of Iowa.” It also says that “the Bible is recognized as the one true revelation from God,” that “all Scripture is essential to prepare us to be the people God wants us to be,” and that the Bible, as “God’s revealed will for mankind,” holds the answers for civic leaders with regard to issues like social injustice and the drug crisis.

Specifically, the objecting groups allege that the governor’s action promotes Christianity in violation of what is known as the “Lemon test” for constitutionality, which establishes three criteria for government action:

1. Does the government action have a secular purpose?
2. Does the government action have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion?
3. Does the government action foster an excessive entanglement between government and religion?

If any of these are violated, then the action is considered to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the promotion of one religion over another. Some Supreme Court justices including the late Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas, however, have objected to the test as applied as a strict requirement for the separation of church and state. The ACLU of Iowa said that they are reviewing the matter for possible litigation.

“While we never announce an intention to file litigation, needless to say, we are carefully reviewing options,” said Bettis.

Though intuitively Branstad’s proclamation may seem a clear violation of the separation of church and state, Jefferson’s “wall” between the two was recently dealt a severe blow by a 2014 Supreme Court decision.

In Town of Greece v. Galloway, a bare majority of justices concluded that it was constitutional for a small upstate New York town to open government meetings with a religious invocation, nearly all of which were Christian or had Christian themes. Following the decision, other towns have followed suit in opening official government meetings with prayers. The Supreme Court decision, however, holds that the practice is only constitutional as long as legislatures maintain “a policy of nondiscrimination,” and thus don’t privilege one religion over another.

A spokesman for the governor told The Des Moines Register that Branstad issues many proclamations, which are nonbinding, and noted that the Colorado Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge to their governors right to issue Day of Prayer proclamations. She said that requests for proclamations “come from a broad spectrum of Iowans that reflect the broad diversity of Iowa.”

This post has been updated to include a statement from the ACLU of Iowa.


Reprinted with permission from Think Progress, a branch of The Center for American Progress