In this state - one of the "reddest of the red" - we often end up with our governmental leaders tied in knots due to the policies they back or the statements they make. For example, Governor Kempthorne (R) has issued a "proclamation" on the National Day of Prayer (1st Thursday in May) from the steps of the State Capitol building every year. However, when the State went to ensure that the steps were available this year for the "proclamation" it found that, curiously, the steps had already been reserved by the Idaho Atheists (gasp! oh the horror!). . . see below the fold for more
It turns out that under the Statehouse rules, the steps can be reserved on a "first come - first served" basis. (Many groups use the steps for various purposes - gay pride day, right-to-life and pro-choice rallies, etc.). Last January, a representative of the Idaho Atheists reserved the steps for tomorrow May 5. An LTE
to the local newspaper from Jack Van Valkenburgh - the local ACLU head explains what happened:
In recent years, one Idaho Atheist member, Susan Harrington, has been so offended by the governor's acts that promote religion over non-religion that she has attended each year's NDoP at the Statehouse. While there, she has politely questioned the governor as to how he can justify his religious proclamations while denying the atheists'.
This winter, Ms. Harrington requested the Statehouse steps for the first Thursday of May for the Idaho Atheists. Her request was granted because the use policy for the Statehouse (see http://www2.state.id.us/adm/pubworks/facilities/capitol.htm) is first come, first served, and no other request for the Statehouse steps for that day, May 5, had been received.
Then two strange things happened:
First, she received a voice mail from a member of the local National Day of Prayer committee acknowledging that they had mistakenly neglected to reserve the steps earlier.
He said the prayer people would meet inside the Statehouse given that the atheists would be outside on the steps. He said he hoped that wouldn't be a problem. Ms. Harrington saved the voice mail, then called the gentleman back and said his plan would be fine.
Second, the state double-crossed her. Tim Mason, statewide facilities manager, now says the Idaho Atheists cannot use the main Statehouse steps because the NDoP event "has been a standing event for a number of years."
The problem with Mr. Mason's statement is that the "standing event" has not been scheduled on the reservations list for the Statehouse steps, and every year that the proclamation has been issued, reservations of the steps have been made by the Governor's staff a couple of weeks before the National Day of Prayer.
The Idaho Atheists have sued the Governor and Mr. Mason in federal district court in an attempt to force the State to back down from its position of supporting religious views over non-religious views. The case will be heard at 3:00 p.m. mountain daylight time today.
The state may have stepped across the constitutional line separating government from religion one time too many in this instance. (By the way, as a Christian myself, I believe that God hears prayers from every corner of the world - why does the State feel the need to speak to Him from its seat of government?) The result of the case will definitely give us an interpretation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - one way or the other. The judge who will hear the case is fair - we are hoping for the best.
Update [2005-5-4 18:56:28 by Idaho Guy]:: According to The Idaho Statesman (Boise's local newspaper)
"The Idaho Atheists Association will be allowed to use the south steps of the Idaho Statehouse for its Idaho Day of Equality celebration, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled Wednesday."
There is no indication of the basis on which Judge Winmill ruled. Nonetheless, it appears to be a win for the separation of church and state - regardless of whether the ruling is based on the First Amendment or upon pre-existing Statehouse rules, or some other basis.