With a group of religious figures eagerly awaiting the move and church-state separation groups eyeing it warily, President Reagan signed a proclamation last week declaring 1983 the Year of the Bible.
A church-state separation group in Madison, Wis., said it would continue its fight against the proclamation on charges that it violates First Amendment separation of church and state.
Meanwhile, a coalition of religious leaders, ranging from widely known evangelical preachers to a Roman Catholic cardinal and a prominent rabbi, has sprung into action to carry out the proclamation's message. The coalition's goal is to get Americans to read the Bible.
"The Bible is the foundation upon which this republic rests," said Bill Bright, president of Campus Crusade for Christ and chairman of the new National Committee for the Year of the Bible. Bright, who initiated the congressional resolutions that authorized the presidential proclamation, quoted a Gallup poll that found that 52 percent of Americans read the Bible less often than once a month and that only 45 percent could name even four of the Ten Commandments.
"I believe the greatest spiritual awakening this country could experience could grow out of this," Bright said.
Next week, a blitz of letters and informational brochures will go out to 15,000 denominations and religious organizations across the country, according to the Rev. Ronn Kerr, a United Methodist minister whose Nashville, Tenn., public relations firm is handling publicity. The campaign itself is being coordinated from offices in Irving, Tex., by Glenn Jones, the campaign's executive director and a retired Air Force colonel.
Next month, mailings to 350,000 churches and synagogues with bumper stickers, buttons, and recommended programs to be followed, are being planned, Kerr said. Specials and testimonials from religious, government and sports figures are being proposed for television in the fall.
Meanwhile, a project of door-to-door evangelizing across the country is being planned with local teams distributing parts of the Bible at each house. "If it's a Christian house, we'll give them a book of the Gospel; if it's a Jewish home, it might be a book of psalms, and if it's a nonreligious home, we'll give them both," said Kerr..
Hours after watching the president sign the proclamation, members of the national committee formed by Bright set a budget of more than $900,000 to carry out the campaign.
The committee has more than 60 members, many of them evangelical Christians, including television preachers Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker, the Rev. Dr. Jimmy T. Draper, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Rev. Dr. Thomas F. Zimmerman, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country.
But, in an unusual coalition, leaders from other backgrounds also are involved. Two of the committee's vice chairmen are Philadelphia's Cardinal John Krol and Rabbi Gerson D. Cohen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, who said he believes the year's focus on the Bible can be a "healing" power in the country.
Three days before signing the proclamation, Reagan, the committee's honorary chairman, attacked critics.
"I realize it is fashionable, in some circles, to believe that no one in government should encourage others to read the Bible," he told a group of more than 2,000 religious broadcasters gathered in Washington. But "the First Amendment was not written to protect the people and their laws from religious values; it was written to protect those values from government tyranny."
The president's proclamation was authorized by resolutions approved by the Senate and House and signed by Reagan last October. The congressional resolutions opened with a description of the Bible as the "word of God" and called for the proclamation in recognition of "both the formative influence the Bible has been for our nation and our national need to study and apply the teachings of the Holy Scriptures."
The presidential proclamation uses weaker language, dropping mention of the "word of God" and "national need." The proclamation cites the "unique contribution of the Bible in shaping the history and character of this nation" and encourages "all citizens, each in his or her own way, to reexamine and rediscover its priceless and timeless message."
Both the congressional resolutions and the proclamation say that Biblical teachings helped form concepts of civil government found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Listed are national leaders beginning with Washington who paid tribute to the Bible.
Church-state separation groups are charging that the resolutions and the proclamation violate the First Amendment. A suit filed last November in U.S. District Court in Madison, Wis., by Anne Gaylor, an atheist who heads the Freedom from Religion Foundation, is seeking to have the congressional resolutions and the proclamation declared unconstitutional on grounds that they establish religion.
"The law authorizing the proclamation specifically singles out the Bible from all other spiritual and religious teachings as the word of God and ascribes to our nation the need to study and apply the teaching of the Holy Scriptures--that is unconstitutional," said Jody Melms, Gaylor's attorney.
A motion for a preliminary injunction to bar the president from signing the proclamation was turned down last month by Judge James Doyle, who said "what is missing is a virtual certainty that unless enjoined the president will actually choose to designate 1983 as the Year of the Bible, and more to the point, that if he does so he will express the designation in an unconstitutional manner."
But the "implication" of the resolutions passed by Congress, Doyle said, "is so powerful as hardly to be described as implication--that those who fail or refuse to accept and to apply Biblical teachings abide in falsehood and evil. To be subjected to such reproach by one's government is to suffer bona fide injury."
Burt Neuborne, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said last week that the ACLU is "actively exploring suing" both Congress and the president on grounds of violation of separation of church and state.
"When both houses of Congress and the president officially endorse a particular religion or a particular set of religious writings, they establish those writings as the official doctrine of the government, and that's unconstitutional," Neuborne said.
"The only time religion occurs in the Constitution is when it's dealt with negatively," said the Rev. Bill Finlator, a national ACLU board member and Southern Baptist minister. "You can't have people take a religious oath to hold office, and the other time is in this (the First Amendment). Both times religion is restrained," he said. Only "one in every 10 or 12 people in the 13 colonies belonged to a church," he said.
Bright, a former candy manufacturer who sold his business in 1951 to evangelize full time to students at UCLA, is well-known in evangelical circles. His Campus Crusade for Christ now reports a $90 million a year budget, a full-time staff of 8,000 (another 8,000 donate part-time work) and 20 different ministries ranging from Bible study programs in college campuses and on Capitol Hill to evangelical programs in more than 100 countries.
He said of the suit in Madison, "I think at best it could be interpreted as harassment."