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Iowa governor attempting to impose Christianity as state government’s religion, say rights groups

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Advocates for the separation of church and state are acting swiftly to scuttle a plan by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) to flood the state’s 99 courthouses with praying, Bible-reading Christians activists for four days.

The Des Moines Register reported that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Iowa, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and the group Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers have roundly condemned the action as a high-handed attempt to establish Christianity as the official religion of the state government. The plan, they say, is a direct violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

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Branstad issued a proclamation earlier this year calling on Iowans to participate in a statewide Bible reading marathon from June 30th to July 3rd that will be held in front of all 99 courthouses in the state simultaneously.

Christian preachers and activists are planning to lead rounds of prayer and Scripture readings — some as frequently as every 15 minutes — as regular Iowans attempt to pay their speeding tickets, finalize their divorces and obtain permits and licenses. The rallies are being coordinated by a number of Christian groups including the Iowa Prayer Caucus, the National Governor’s Prayer Team and the United States Prayer Council.

In his proclamation, the governor urged Iowans to “read through the Bible on a daily basis each year until the Lord comes.”

“The government is supposed to be neutral toward religion,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor of FFRF to the Register.

“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?” Gaylor continued. “Everyone can see how inappropriate that would be. This is exactly the same type of violation.”

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Both the ACLU of Wisconsin and FFRF are reviewing the matter for potential legal action.

The ACLU of Wisconsin told the Register‘s Jason Clayworth that Branstad’s proclamation does not pass the so-called Lemon Test, in reference to the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court Case “named after Alton Lemon, the plaintiff in a case that determined it unconstitutional for Pennsylvania to reimburse private schools for salaries and textbooks.”

The Lemon Test poses three questions:

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?

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If the government action in question violates any of these three questions, it is illegal under the Constitution.

Branstad’s office dismissed the idea that there was anything wrong with staging marathon Christian rallies on public property.

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“The governor issues many proclamations that recognize events, activities and different organizations’ causes,” said spokesman Ben Hammes. “Requests come from a broad spectrum of Iowans that reflect the broad diversity of Iowa.”

One of the event’s top organizers, Iowa Prayer Caucus director Ginny Caligiuri, has dismissed the idea of a separate church and state as “a fallacy.” Those rules are in place, she told the Register, to protect churches from government overreach, not the other way around.

The ACLU’s Rita Bettis disagreed, saying, “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,” Bettis said Tuesday. “Our U.S. and Iowa state constitutions protect from precisely this sort of government overreaching and endorsement of a particular faith.”

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