Sep 04, 2002

A government-sponsored religious service in Chicago to commemorate Sept. 11 violates the U.S. Constitution, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

In a letter to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, Americans United warned that the city's planned Sept. 11 memorial ceremony fosters too much entanglement between religion and government.

Americans United objects to what Daley's office calls the "centerpiece" of the program -- a mass recitation of "the Chicago Prayer of Hope, Unity and Remembrance." According to the mayor's office, the city-commissioned prayer was written jointly by prominent religious leaders of Chicago.

The official city prayer will apparently be printed and distributed at government expense to the memorial ceremony audience. It will also be distributed to local churches, synagogues and mosques.

According to a press release from Mayor Daley's office, public schools have been asked to suspend their normal activities at noon "so students can share in the observance."

"While I'm sure this event is well intentioned, government officials should not commission prayers and use taxpayer money to print and distribute them," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United.

Many communities will be observing special public ceremonies to commemorate the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but AU's Lynn said Chicago's planned events are problematic because of the obvious blurring of the church-state line.

"All of us were affected by the events of Sept. 11, but this flagrant mixing of church and state is inappropriate," Lynn added. "The people of Chicago can choose to honor the victims of terrorism through voluntary worship, not city-sponsored religion."

In the Sept. 4 letter to Daley, Americans United insisted that the planned memorial ceremony raises serious constitutional questions.

"We have no doubt," wrote AU's Lynn, "that Chicago's religious community, like thousands across the nation, is fully capable of organizing appropriate religious observances, without the involvement of government, for those Chicagoans who wish to take part in them in order to commemorate September 11. As for the City of Chicago, its observance should be designed to ensure that all residents and visitors feel welcome. After all, September 11 was a tragedy for all Americans believers and nonbelievers alike."

The letter noted that the federal courts have been especially strict in prohibiting government-imposed religious pressures on public school students.

"We hope that Chicago's schoolchildren will not be asked or pressured to participate in any religious activity," wrote Lynn. "The Supreme Court has ruled that 'there are heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressures in the elementary and secondary schools.'"

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.