Government officials in Chicago want as many city residents as possible to get vaccinated against COVID-19. That’s good. They’re asking community leaders, including members of the clergy, to help spread the word. That’s also good.
Here’s what’s not so good: Over the weekend, the city’s Department of Public Health sponsored an official Day of Prayer as part of its pro-vaccine campaign.
City officials created a special section of Chicago’s website to promote the event and made a logo with an image of praying hands superimposed with the words “Chicago Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving.” Religious leaders were urged to register for the event, and the city maintained a list of participating houses of worship.
“No matter where you live, or how you worship – prayer is universal,” reads a section of the city’s website. “On November 6, Chicagoans across all denominations in all of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods will pause for a shared moment of prayer for COVID-safe holidays. This moment will also offer a reminder that everyone needs to be fully vaccinated by November 11 to be able to celebrate Thanksgiving safely.”
While we at Americans United feel certain that the city’s goal here is a positive one, the approach officials took is problematic. Religious leaders, not government officials, should always be the ones to call people to pray and organize religious events.
City officials also need to recognize the fact that activities like prayer, worship and other devotional exercises are not “universal.” Growing numbers of Americans are stepping away from organized religion, and Chicago, like any other community in America, has its share of atheists, humanists and agnostics. The first duty of government is to represent all of its people; when government officials sponsor prayer events, they exclude many of their constituents.
Americans United’s Legal Department has written to city officials to remind them that government sponsorship of religion is inappropriate and unconstitutional. We’re urging the city not to repeat this mistake.
Encouraging people to stay safe and healthy during a raging pandemic is a noble and important goal. There are better ways for city officials to achieve it than sponsoring and promoting religious events.