Houston Clergy Join Protest Against Perry's Prayer Event

A growing number of local and national civil rights organizations have joined the protest against Texas Gov. Rick Perry's extremist-sponsored Houston prayer gathering since SCA first criticized the event two weeks ago.

Echoing SCA's position that it's totally inappropriate for an elected official to promote divisive religious messages while teaming up with an identified "hate group" such as the American Family Association, organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center, American Atheists, the Interfaith Alliance, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations have all issued statements condemning Perry's role in the event.

But it's not just the "usual suspects" promoting church-state separation who have a problem with Perry's actions. Last week, more than 20 clergy members from the Houston area penned a must-read editorial in the Houston Chronicle, explaining their "deep concern" over the event:

We believe in a healthy boundary between church and state. Out of respect for the state, we believe that it should represent all citizens equally and without preference for religious or philosophical tradition. Out of respect for religious communities, we believe that they should foster faithful ways of living without favoring one political party over another. Keeping the church and state separate allows each to thrive and upholds our proud national tradition of empowering citizens to worship freely and vote conscientiously. We are concerned that our governor has crossed the line by organizing a religious event rather than focusing on the people's business in Austin.

We also express concern that the day of prayer and fasting at Reliant Stadium is not an inclusive event. As clergy leaders in the nation's fourth-largest city, we take pride in Houston's vibrant and diverse religious landscape. Our religious communities include Bahais, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Unitarian Universalists and many other faith traditions. Our city is also home to committed agnostics and atheists, with whom we share common cause as fellow Houstonians. Houston has long been known as a live-and-let-live city where all are respected and welcomed. It troubles us that the governor's prayer event is not open to everyone. In the publicized materials, the governor has made it clear that only Christians of a particular kind are welcome to pray in a certain way. We feel that such an exclusive event does not reflect the rich tapestry of our city.

Reading a group of Christian and Unitarian Universalist ministers offer such a poignant defense of secular government and warmly refer to agnostics and atheists as their "fellow Houstonians" is a truly great reminder that in debates such as these, it's not only non-religious people who support keeping church and state separate. We've received more than a few negative emails from religious Americans who think that our criticism of Gov. Perry amounts to opposition of a citizen's right to private worship. That's simply not true.

As the authors of the editorial point out, secular government is in many ways what allows religious faith to flourish. Providing freedom of and from religion is the only way to ensure that everyone is able to practice, or not practice, their own beliefs freely -- and the best way to preserve those freedoms is a secular government that gives no privilege to one worldview over another.

When a U.S. governor, on the other hand, declares that "as a nation, we must come together and call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles," and insists that all Americans should embrace his religion as the only solution, those freedoms become threatened, for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Rick Perry might not fully appreciate the purpose of secularism, but those Houston clergy members sure do:

"We ask that Gov. Perry leave the ministry to us," they wrote, "and refocus his energy on the work of governing our state."

Is there a secular word for "amen"?

Correction: This post originally referred to the op-ed's authors only as Christian clergy when, in fact, many of them were also Unitarian Universalists. The post has been updated to reflect those changes.
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