Faced with an ongoing drought that has brought severe water shortages to many regions of the state, Georgia’s Gov. Sonny Perdue settled on an unusual solution in November: a state-sponsored religious service to pray for rain.
On Nov. 13, Perdue presided over a gathering of three Protestant ministers, a gospel choir and a crowd of nearly 250 citizens on the steps of the state capitol building to pray for rain.
As the Los Angeles Times put it, Gov. Perdue first led the group in prayer, begging for forgiveness for being wasteful with water.
“Oh Father, we acknowledge our wastefulness,” Perdue prayed. “But we’re doing better. And I thought it was time to acknowledge that to the creator, the provider of water and land, and to tell him that we will do better.”
He also stated, “We have come together, very simply, for one reason and one reason only: To very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm.”
The three ministers followed Perdue, and a choir led the crowd in “Amazing Grace” and “What a Mighty God We Serve.”
Perdue’s critics scored the governor for failing to take the water shortage seriously and not establishing stricter conservation measures. At the height of the drought, many Georgians were infuriated to read about an Atlanta millionaire whose mansion used 60 times more water than the average home.
“We shouldn’t look at it as ‘Once the rains come we’ll be fine,’” Gil Rogers, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told the Times. “We’d all like to see rain, but this doesn’t get us any closer to sustaining water management in Georgia.”
Days before the event took place, Americans United for Separation of Church and State urged Perdue not to go through with the religious service.
“The planned prayer service would violate fundamental constitutional principles by communicating to Georgia residents that the state endorses religion,” wrote AU Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee and Madison Fellow Jessica L. Wolland. The letter asked that the event be cancelled and that future state-sponsored events “not convey a message of religious endorsement.”
The day of the prayer service, members of the Atlanta Freethought Society turned out to protest.
“We’ve got a real problem. Let’s try to do something real about it instead of grandstanding,” said the group’s Ed Buckner. “It is also an absurd, foolish thing to do, and it makes the state of Georgia and Georgians like myself look dumb.”
Some critics of the governor accused him of deliberately scheduling the event on a day when rain was in the forecast. In fact, it did rain the day after the service in some parts of the state, but the amount was so little – about a quarter of an inch – that it failed to make a dent in the drought. (The state faces a 16-inch deficit.)
Three weeks later, the state had two days of rain, but this was followed by more weeks of drought. The situation is so bad that state officials are lining up vendors to bring in bottled water and tanker trucks full of water that could be dispersed to people in jugs and buckets.