Texas governor defends prayer day after lawsuit filed

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday defended his upcoming Christian prayer gathering as a "simple," non-political event that has come under attack from intolerant atheists.

"I can't wait until the 6th of August rolls around and we fill up Reliant Stadium with people who are Christ-loving and realize that our country has gotten off track," Perry said a day after an atheists and agnostics group sued to stop the governor from using his government office to promote or recognize the Houston event, called The Response.

"Just like back in days of old, God is the same God we had from the days of Israel, and in the book of Joel it said to blow the trumpet and assemble the people and go into a day of fasting and prayer to ask for God's direction ...  it's nothing more than that."

"The event's not political, it's going to be simple," Perry told Family Research Council President Tony Perkins and American Family Association President Tim Wildmon in an interview on Today’s Issues Washington Watch Edition, which the council posted on its website Thursday. The event will be "people calling out to God, that's all."

Perry has invited Obama administration officials, the nation's governors and Texas lawmakers to attend.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation lawsuit alleges Perry violated the First Amendment's establishment clause by organizing, promoting and participating in the event.

Perry's office issued a press release June 6 announcing the event, and The Response website features the governor in a video inviting people to participate. 

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which unsuccessfully sued to stop a national day of prayer earlier this year, filed the case on behalf of 700 members in Texas.

"Isn’t it just the type of intolerance to say that we can’t gather together in public to pray to our God?" Perry said Thursday. "That is amazing to me.”

He called organizers of The Response "a very diverse group" of "Christian leaders of all races, of all ages, of all Christian denominations."

The event is being sponsored by several evangelical Christian groups, including the American Family Association, which has been criticized by civil rights groups for promoting anti-homosexual and anti-Islamic positions on the roughly 200 radio stations it operates.

Among The Response endorsers listed on its website are Pastor John Hagee of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, who has said God sent Hitler to hunt Jews so they would return to Israel, and Mike Bickle, director of the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Mo., who has called Oprah Winfrey the harbinger of the anti-Christ.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation said that it does not oppose politicians taking part in religious services, but that Perry crossed a line by initiating the event, using his position as governor to endorse and promote it and by using his official website to link to the organizer's website. The plaintiffs also contend that Perry's use of Texas' official state seal to endorse the event and his plans to issue an official proclamation violate the Constitution.

An appellate court in April dismissed the group's previous lawsuit against the Obama administration over the National Day of Prayer, on which people of all faiths were invited to take part. The three-judge panel ruled that the group could not prove that they had suffered any harm when the president issued a proclamation observing the day.

In the lawsuit against Perry, the foundation complained that it had suffered from Perry's official promotion of the event because a major billboard company denied the group's attempt to purchase advertising in the Houston area to protest the event.

The lawsuit is "legal harassment," Eric Bearse, a spokesman for the AFA and The Response. So far, he told CSMonitor.com, 6,000 people are planning to attend, including Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback.

Perry on Thursday continued to promote the event during the interview and agreed with interviewers who said he could not be kept from participating in the event, which he called necessary for the nation.

"I know my limitations, I want God helping me, guiding me, giving me direction," Perry said.

"It's not about me ... It's about him ... lifting this nation up, give us a blessing, and give us direction, and frankly forgive us for the sins we have committed."

"I hope literally hundreds of thousands if not millions across this country that day will go into a spiritual, truthful, fasting and praying mode. Lifting up this country and asking for God’s will to be done."