MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama Republican Gov. Bob Riley has incurred the wrath of ardent church-state separationists for offering early-morning Bible study classes to his staff.
"He is a political panhandler for public piety," said Larry Darby, Alabama state director of American Atheists. "He's using the machinery of government to promote the concept that God is necessary in government. It's not."
Riley attended regular prayer meetings while serving as a representative in Congress. He said he can't understand why bringing the tradition to the Alabama governor's office is creating controversy.
"This country was set up on the principle that everyone had the right to worship as they saw fit," Riley said. "What the Constitution says is government should never forbid the practice of religion or interfere in the practice of religion."
Riley started offering Bible study classes shortly after taking office Jan. 20. A Southern Baptist, he holds classes with senior staff and Cabinet members each Tuesday morning. Other staff members hold their own Wednesday morning class. Both sessions take place before normal working hours and staffers say no state business is discussed.
"This is something that I think my Cabinet enjoys," Riley said. "It's something that means a lot to me. But it is strictly voluntary and will continue to be."
Last Wednesday's meeting was attended by 11 of Riley's 55 regular staff members. Participants say this is proof no one is being pressured to attend.
Catholic and Protestant ministers have presided over previous sessions and staff members say they plan to invite a rabbi to an upcoming meeting. But Darby insists that as long as the governor is involved, the Bible study amounts to "prayer bullying," and favors some religions over others.
Tongue-in-cheek, Darby added, "I hope to be notified when the first Wiccan offers some sort of chant ... and I would really like to see this state accept some Islamic fundamentalists offering their prayers in the governor's office."
The debate over Bible study in the governor's office is just the latest battle over the separation of church and state in Alabama.
Roy Moore, the state's chief justice, is currently appealing a federal judge's order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building.
Even some of the plaintiffs in the monument case acknowledge there is nothing illegal about the governor holding voluntary Bible classes.
Legal or not, Darby insists religious study in the governor's office blurs the line separating church and state. But Riley and staff members say the U.S. Constitution protects the religious practices of all Americans, including those in government.
"How did we get to this point?" Gov. Riley asked rhetorically. "How did we get to the point that today it's controversial to come together at a Bible study?"