JOHNSTON — Gov. Kim Reynolds’ call for Holy Week prayers to comfort Iowans caught in the fearful grip of a global pandemic provoked dismay among groups who believe such a message from a government official violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Iowa’s governor closed her daily news conference Thursday by asking “all Iowans to join together in a day of prayer for protection, healing, grace and peace.”
Despite the threats posed by an invisible novel coronavirus that has claimed the lives of at least 29 Iowans and infected 1,270 more, Reynolds said “with God’s grace, there is always a promise of hope.”
On Wednesday, Reynolds signed a proclamation declaring Thursday a “Day of Prayer” in Iowa and inviting Iowans to participate in a Good Friday online prayer breakfast. Wednesday also marked the beginning of the Jewish festival of Passover.
The governor said at the end of her Thursday press briefing, “Today I will be praying for you and your families, for our health care workers, our first responders, our essential workforce — including those in manufacturing, food production, transportation and our grocery-store workers — for keeping our supply chain up and running and for the strength of our state.”
“So God bless each and every one of you, God bless the great state of Iowa, and I promise you, if you keep doing what we’ve asked you to do, we are going to get through this together.”
Leaders with the ACLU of Iowa and the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa said it was inappropriate for the governor, elected to represent all Iowans, to elevate any religious belief or practice — especially in the context of a governmental edict — calling it a “recipe for religious exclusion.”
“Interfaith Alliance of Iowa is alarmed and disheartened at the idea that the governor of the state of Iowa would declare a Day of Prayer,” said Connie Ryan, the alliance’s executive director. “The governor is the state’s highest elected official representing all Iowans, regardless of their beliefs. She is not the pastor-in-chief of the state. Declaring a Day of Prayer is an inappropriate action by the governor.”
While many Iowans are people of faith who pray, Ryan said, “it is never the role of elected officials to promote any particular religion or any religious practice.
“The governor should focus on the best practices in public health to ensure the safety and well-being of all Iowans, not the practices of any religion. Promoting religious practices is the role of faith leaders, not elected officials,” she added.
Mark Stringer, ACLU of Iowa executive director, said the governor was violating state and federal religious freedom principles by promoting Christianity and endorsing one particular religion.
“Calling for prayer to one particular God at this time divides us more than it unites us, and we sorely need leadership that brings our state together during this difficult time,” Stringer said in a statement.
“Religious freedom is alive and well in the United States precisely because the government can’t tell us when, how or even whether to pray,” Stringer said.
“The governor calling for prayer to a specific deity is an insult to our proud tradition of religious pluralism and equality,” he said. “It sends an unconstitutional and exclusionary message that people of a particular faith are officially favored while everyone else is second-class, or worse, in the government’s eyes.
“When, how or whether to pray is a deeply personal decision, one that should be made without the government’s interference or influence.”
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