Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has declared Thursday, October 10, 2019, to be a voluntary “Day of Prayer, Humility, and Fasting” in the state. Such proclamations are generally not surprising or unusual, at either the federal or local levels, and they have held up under constitutional scrutiny. But, that doesn’t mean they are a good idea (they aren’t). And Gov. Lee’s is a good example of why.
His proclamation declares that the people of Tennessee acknowledge, among other things, “the need to give thanks to God Almighty, to turn from our transgressions and ask for God’s forgiveness… .” Although the invitation to join the governor in prayer and fasting is explicitly labeled voluntary, many Tennesseans may feel ostracized by their own government, or feel that their faith is being improperly promoted by the state.
In an op-ed for The Tennessean discussing the proclamation, editorial board member David Plazas expresses that concern, arguing that the governor’s words:
…create the impression that the governor is speaking for all Tennesseans when it comes to their faith or lack of religious affiliation.
Lee has the right to worship as he pleases . . . However, he must be mindful that the influence and power he holds as governor may make it appear that he is favoring one particular religious point of view.
Official proclamations creating a state-sponsored day of prayer are unnecessary and misguided, even if voluntary. And, as it turns out, Gov. Lee is not the only Tennessee official who has mixed prayer with his government duties. The Daily News Journal reports this week that dozens of complaints have been sent to school districts across Tennessee about improper prayer in school-related settings since 2016. Incidents range from a Wilson County school board member who recites the Lord’s Prayer before every meeting to Knox County schools that organize and promote religious prayer walks.
Government-sponsored prayers are especially troublesome in school settings, as children are far more likely to be coerced into participating, and more likely to presume that the government approves of and endorses the religious messages it hosts on school grounds. And, as BJC explains in a one-page resource, students can voluntarily engage in various forms of religious expression in public schools, including student-initiated and student-led prayer.
We don’t need the government to tell us when to pray, when to fast, or when to ask forgiveness from transgressions. For people of faith, every day is a day of prayer. Gov. Lee serves all the people of Tennessee, regardless of their faith. His prayer proclamation could have explicitly made that point.