November 22, 1997 in City

Lacey Moves Ahead With Bible Week

Associated Press

Des Moines has rescinded its proclamation of Bible Week next week, but Lacey city officials are going ahead with theirs.

The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter Thursday to Des Moines Mayor Scott Thomasson saying it is unconstitutional to spend public money to promote religion.

Thomasson started Thursday night’s City Council meeting in Des Moines - a community of about 14,000 between Seattle and Tacoma - by rescinding the proclamation.

“I in no way intended the proclamation to appear as a recognition of one belief or another,” said Thomasson, a Presbyterian. “I have submitted payment to the city sufficient to cover any staff time or materials used in preparing the proclamation.”

In his letter to the mayor, Gerry Sheehan, legislative director of the ACLU in Washington, said: “I don’t suppose that you intend to proclaim, periodically, the Week of the Koran, the Week of the Torah, the Week of the Analects of the Buddha, or Atheism Appreciation Week, since these religious perspectives do not represent your personal views.”

Thomasson said he got the idea from “a mailing from an organization that went to mayors throughout the country.”

According to the proclamation, the Laymen’s National Bible Association has sponsored Bible Week for 57 years.

“The Bible has been a constant source of moral and spiritual guidance for Americans throughout our history,” said the proclamation, signed only by Thomasson. It urged “all citizens” to participate “by reading the Bible and discovering for themselves its values for personal and community life.”

But Bible Week is proceeding in Lacey, a town of 16,000 near Olympia, where Mayor Nancy Peterson signed a similar proclamation.

Sheehan sent her a letter Friday, saying the proclamation “violates both the Washington and the United States constitutions because it is an example of governmental endorsement of a particular religious persuasion.”

City Manager Greg Cuoio said he asked the city attorney, Ken Ahlf, to check the proposed proclamation to make sure it didn’t violate the federal doctrine separating church and state.

Ahlf told city officials the proclamation was broad enough to pass muster, Cuoio said.

Not everyone agrees.

“It just doesn’t seem like something the City Council should be doing,” said Councilman Jim Weber. “We represent all religious views.”

But council members Earlyse Swift and Herb Jones say that’s precisely why they think the Bible Week proclamation is appropriate.

If Buddhists or Muslims asked for a proclamation, Lacey would honor their requests, Swift said.

“We honor all religions and people who choose not to have a religion,” she said. “I believe that the richness of America is accepting any religion.”

Sheehan said the rationale that any religion could be issued a similar proclamation doesn’t work.

“This misunderstands the law,” he wrote. “Government should not be issuing proclamations ABOUT religion, either for or against.”

The state constitution bars use of public money “appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction,” Sheehan added.

“Your proclamation has already ‘appropriated’ public money, just by having city employees produce the document.”

It would be appropriate for Peterson as a private citizen to take out a paid ad recommending that people read and study the Bible, Sheehan said.

“I urge you to recognize the constitutional impropriety of using your public office to advance the cause of your personal religious convictions.”

© Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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