AUSTIN, Texas – A group of atheists and agnostics sued in federal court Wednesday seeking to stop an evangelical Christian prayer event next month that was proposed and is endorsed by Texas’ governor.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation argues in its lawsuit filed in Houston that Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s day of prayer and fasting would violate the constitutional ban on the government endorsing a religion. The event, which is called The Response and is billed as Christian-only, is scheduled for Aug. 6 at Houston’s Reliant Stadium.
“The plaintiffs seek a declaration that Texas Governor Rick Perry’s initiation, organization, promotion and participation as governor in a prayer rally at Reliant Stadium … violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the complaint says.
The group, which unsuccessfully sued to stop a national day of prayer earlier this year, filed the case on behalf of 700 members in Texas and called on the court to stop Perry from participating in the meeting or using his office to promote or recognize it.
Perry held a conference call with ministers who will be participating in the event on Wednesday, according to his spokeswoman, Catherine Frazier. She did not have any details on what was discussed, but said the lawsuit will not change his plans.
“He believes it will serve as an important opportunity for Americans to gather together and pray to God, seeking his wisdom and guidance as our nation navigates the challenges before it. The pending litigation does not affect plans for the prayer event to carry out as planned.” Frazier said.
A spokesman for the event, Eric Bearse, dismissed the foundation’s claims.
“This kind of legal harassment is no surprise, but we will vigorously defend the right of Americans to assemble and pray and we will win,” he said.
Perry invited the Obama administration, the nation’s governors and Texas lawmakers to attend the event.
“Given the trials that beset our nation and world, from the global economic downturn to natural disasters, the lingering danger of terrorism and continued debasement of our culture, I believe it is time to convene the leaders from each of our United States in a day of prayer and fasting, like that described in the book of Joel,” Perry said in his open invitation to attend the event on June 3.
The event is being sponsored by several evangelical Christian groups, including the American Family Association, which has been criticized by civil rights groups for promoting anti-homosexual and anti-Islamic positions on the roughly 200 radio stations it operates.
The foundation said it does not oppose politicians taking part in religious services, but that Perry crossed a line by initiating the event, using his position as governor to endorse and promote it and by using his official website to link to the organizer’s website. The plaintiffs also contend that Perry’s use of Texas’ official state seal to endorse the event and his plans to issue an official proclamation violate the Constitution.
“The answers for America’s problems won’t be found on our knees or in heaven, but by using our brains, our reason and in compassionate action,” said Dan Barker, a co-director of the foundation. “Gov. Perry’s distasteful use of his civil office to plan and dictate a religious course of action to ‘all citizens’ is deeply offensive to many citizens, as well as to our secular form of government.”
An appellate court in April dismissed the group’s previous lawsuit against the Obama administration over the National Day of Prayer, on which people of all faiths were invited to take part. The three-judge panel ruled that the group could not prove that they had suffered any harm when the president issued a proclamation observing the day.
In the lawsuit against Perry, the foundation complained that it had suffered from Perry’s official promotion of the event because a major billboard company denied the group’s attempt to purchase advertising in the Houston area to protest the event.