Governor Jan Brewer's executive order creating the "Governor's Office of Faith and Community Partnerships" is not sitting well with some atheist and civil-rights groups.
Leaders of these groups, along with a couple of atheist politicians, delivered a letter to Brewer's office this morning, asking for certain "safeguards" and "balance" in the newly created office.
"Arizona is full of atheists, and Governor Brewer needs to understand this," American Atheists president David Silverman said at a press conference outside the state capitol this morning. "Governor Brewer needs to know when she puts together this office . . . that the faith portion of that excludes approximately a third of her state's voters."
Brewer had initially established something called the ArizonaSERVES Task Force by executive order in 2010. The order established a 21-member panel -- eight of whom are representatives of faith-based organizations -- to promote service and volunteerism in the state.
The governor then signed another executive order about two weeks ago, superseding the previous order and establishing this Governor's Office of Faith and Community Partnerships. The role is described similarly, including the appointment of people from faith-based groups, but her new order allows the office to accept and spend money, including the ability to get local, state, or federal government funding.
That part of the order that has several non-faith organizations concerned. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, the Secular Coalition for Arizona, NARAL Pro-Choice Arizona, and others banded together to ask the governor for proper oversight.
The letter delivered to Brewer's office this morning asks for accountability of any taxpayer funds used by this office, to make sure that programs receiving any taxpayer funds are "free of religious content," and that any programs receiving taxpayer funds are completely inclusive.
Governor Brewer's promotion of religious-based laws and programs during her time in office aren't quelling the fears that she's again promoting certain religious beliefs in state government.
"Governor Brewer's interest is about imposing her values limited to her religious beliefs rather than serving all the people of Arizona," says Kat Sabine, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Arizona. "While Arizonans had been facing the most difficult financial disaster in our lifetimes, Governor Brewer had focused her attention on promoting childbirth in schools, helping to fund crisis pregnancy centers -- which are religiously funded organizations that do not serve the needs, honestly, for all women -- and she signed religious protection from contraception coverage, which was used as a foundation argument in the ill-decided Hobby Lobby case at the Supreme Court."
There's an interesting ongoing battle over religion at the Arizona Legislature, as there's been a strong presence of religious-based legislating for years, but there's recently been a growing non-religious movement there. Democratic Representative Juan Mendez became one of the very few openly atheist lawmakers in the nation, and there have been a few lawmakers who have delivered a non-theistic invocation when it came their turn to deliver the opening prayer. (There was also a time when one lawmaker demanded to say an extra prayer after Mendez gave a religion-free invocation.)
"To this day, I still get e-mails from constituents . . . who never thought it would be possible for people of secular community and atheism to be part of the government," Mendez says today. "I think the governor's actions [are] a missed opportunity and a kind of systemic exclusion around the idea of service and civic engangement. There are a lot of people who don't engage in faith who want to be welcomed into not just helping solve social problems, but the invitation from government to speak and share their experiences."
James Woods, an atheist who's running for Congress in Congressional District 5 as a Democrat, joined in on delivering the letter to Brewer this morning.
"St. Mary's Food Bank was founded by a religious institution, but they are very strict in being a completely secular organization when it comes to the distribution of food to people in need -- that is the way an office like this should be handled," Woods says. "Giving people of non-belief or minority faith traditions a space at the table is the only way to make an office like this constitutional and inclusive. Denying this right is not only unfair, it's morally reprehensible."
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We've asked Brewer's spokesman to respond to the letter delivered to the governor's office this morning. We'll update this post when we receive a response.
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