- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000

Mayor Cynthia Dunham of Gilbert, Ariz., has done what some governors and states have failed to do honor religion in public proclamations without being stopped by lawsuits.
She has declared "Bible Week" and Buddha's birthday with impunity, just as Arizona's governor has backed down on Bible Reading Week and Ohio may be forced to drop its state motto because it has the "God" word.
"As an elected official, I see nothing wrong and, in fact, find it beneficial, to acknowledge the diversity in our community," Ms. Dunham said in an interview. "Each mayor has responsibility for their unique area."
Last year, Gov. Jane Hull dropped proclamations for "Bible Week," a national tradition since 1941, to avoid an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit a lawsuit that the city of Gilbert won.
The governor, however, did sign a religious liberty proclamation this week as did the mayor of Gilbert marking Buddha's birthday because it "endorses the ideas of tolerance and liberty," not religion itself, the governor's spokeswoman said.
After the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Ohio's God-bearing motto was unconstitutional, "various groups have come out in support of the motto, including a Muslim coalition," said Chris Davey, spokesman for the Ohio attorney general.
On Monday, the attorney general asked the entire 6th Circuit to reverse its ruling that the motto from the New Testament, "With God All Things Are Possible," was an establishment of religion.
Last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals defended the right of a Tucson couple to use public property to commemorate the National Day of Prayer inaugurated by Congress in 1952.
The court ruled that it was "viewpoint discrimination" for the city of Tucson to charge Patricia and Robert Gentala in 1997 for facility support when the city did not charge nonreligious groups. Tucson appealed that ruling this week.
"These are interesting contradictions," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which successfully defended Mrs. Dunham and the Tucson couple.
"The presidents and Congress proclaim these commemorations, and then mayors and governors are not allowed to support them," Mr. Sekulow said. "I don't think anyone should be telling mayors what to do. That's censorship."
In the case of the Ohio motto, the state senate passed a resolution backing the attorney general's appeal. But two senators suggested changing the state motto to "In God We Trust" because it is the federal motto, which has proven immune from prosecution.
Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the National Capital ACLU, said that it has been consistent on all the prayer and Bible decrees.
"We don't think presidents or Congress should be making such proclamations, nor should governors and mayors," Mr. Spitzer said. "I suppose we've been more successful in persuading people on a local level against this than we have at the national level."
Ohio is one of the few states that has religious language in its motto, though many cities and counties use religious language and symbols.
The National Day of Prayer, which falls on the first Thursday of May, was given a commemorative status by Congress and President Reagan in 1988. However, prayer days go back to urgings by Congress and presidents since 1775, and President Truman enacted the annual observance in 1952.
Similarly, in his first term in 1993, President Clinton continued the practice of giving a message for National Bible Week.
Last year, the National Bible Association, sponsor of the event, reported that 34 governors and 588 mayors issued proclamation for Bible Week. It was an increase from 27 governors and 400 cities in 1998.
Mr. Sekulow said some judges back religious days or proclamations as mere customs, but now under the Supreme Court it may be argued that it is "viewpoint discrimination" to honor secular days but exclude religious ones.

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