The unusual presidential petitions for prayer following Sept. 11, have been met with an even more remarkable silence from the group that has traditionally been most vocally opposed to state sponsored spirituality.
The American Civil Liberties Union, with an uncharacteristic quiet, did not and, according to officials, will not protest the nationally sponsored day of prayer on September 14.
“This is not the time to talk about that, it’s a time for mourning and for healing,” said Carol Gnade, executive director of the ACLU of Utah.
Coming from an organization that just over a year ago declared “total victory” over state sponsored prayer, the silence is notable and indicative of the impact left by the terrorist attacks.
The ACLU’s triumphal announcement came after the Supreme Court banned prayer from high school stadiums in July of 2000.
A year before, in 1999, ACLU lawyers had argued that a banner hung from a Troy, Mich. civic center advertising the National Day of Prayer amounted to the city promoting religion.
Times have apparently changed.
Gnade said the organization has no plans to protest President Bush’s decision to send school children home early with specific instructions to pray on the Friday following the terrorist attacks.
Though the ACLU will be vocal about future government response to the terrorism, Gnade said they will likely leave the topic of prayer out of any pending protests.
She said the reason the ACLU is willing to let the issue slide is because the emphasis on prayer will not last.
“This is passing,” she said.
Other organizations are not as patient.
The American Atheists, Inc., a group dedicated to the “total absolute separation of religion and government,” released a statement on September 14, denouncing the “governments attempts to use religion to unify the country.”
Though the Atheists are not planning any legal action, they are offended by the nations “lack of sensitivity to those who do not believe,” said Ron Barrier, director of communications for the American Atheists.
Barrier said he is also concerned that the presidential call to prayer amounts to an official endorsement of Christianity and will convert the conflict into a battle of Muslims v. Christians.
“All we’re asking is the government to exhibit sympathy for the diversity of the country,” he said.
Mike Rivers, director of American Atheists in Utah, said he felt ostracized by the prayer vigils.
With more then 27 million people who profess no religious faith in the United States, a significant portion of society has been “left out and shunned” during a time of need — and for a purpose that will not benefit the country, Rivers said.
Rivers and Barrier expressed their opinion that the country would do better to focus on temporal solutions to problems resulting from terrorism.
“I do not consider prayer to be any more effective than talking to a wall,” Rivers said.
Allen Bergin, former director of the doctoral program in clinical psychology at BYU said the facts do not support Rivers’ statement.
Empirical research shows that people who have a strong faith cope better with traumatizing situations, Bergin said.
Though a national show of faith among a population accused of being too self-focused was surprising to many, Bergin said it was somewhat inevitable.
“The basic roots of American character are religious, and it is sweeping the country. You couldn’t stop it with a law if you wanted to,” he said.
Frank Fox, history professor at BYU, said he thought the president’s call for prayer was historically appropriate and justified.
The Founding Fathers separated church and state in order to purify the influence of religion on public life and vice versa, Fox said.
“They believed that private religions are the bulwark of a nation,” he said.
Catastrophes have always had a tendency to bring a nation back to its first principals, he said.
Fox and Bergin, however, agreed the spirituality will not last.
William Flegge, pastor of the St. Francis Church in Orem, said attendance at his services has increased since the attacks.
“I think everybody got a perspective of how things we think are indestructible are not,” he said.
Flegge said he also thinks the fervor will fade.
“It will take another catastrophe to change things again.”
Correction: A previous headline for this article inferred that the ACLU was “anti-religious.” The Daily Universe regrets the inaccuracy.)