Tens of thousands sign petition for Billy Graham national holiday. Would it be legal?

Tens of thousands sign petition for Billy Graham national holiday. Would it be legal?
Billy Graham was widely regarded as America's most prominent Christian leader, pastor to both presidents and everyday Americans. (Source: The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Mark Price/The Charlotte Observer) - A movement to establish a national holiday for evangelist Billy Graham is earning tens of thousands of backers, who have signed an online petition on Change.org.

Since being launched a week ago, the petition has gotten more than 86,000 signatures, which is more than double the initial goal of 35,000. The goal is now 150,000 signatures.

In a career spanning more than 60 years, he took his simple Christian message to more than 84 million people in almost 60 countries – including multitudes of spiritually starved believers behind the communist Iron Curtain. Add those who heard him live, via satellite, and the numbers jump to 210 million people in 185 countries.

"Mr. Graham's counsel was sought by presidents, and his appeal in both the secular and religious arenas is evidenced by the wide range of groups that have honored him...Help us with our cause of setting a national holiday to remember this great man," says the petition, started by someone identified as Kyle Siler.

Graham died Feb. 21 at his home in the mountain town of Montreat at the age of 99 and was buried in Charlotte on Friday. He became the first private citizen since civil rights icon Rosa Parks in 2005 to lie in honor at the U.S. Capitol.

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RELATED: Rev. Billy Graham lies in honor at U.S. Capitol following ceremony

The holiday effort will likely meet resistance, because of concerns over the separation of church and state. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has a holiday in his honor, but was recognized more for his impact on civil rights than for his religious preaching.

Critics have already questioned Graham's lying in honor at the U.S. Capitol. A growing number of editorials and stories about the debate have run in such publications as the Washington Post, Baptist News Global and TownHall.com.

Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the Miller Center for presidential and political history at the University of Virginia, told the Washington Post she thinks honoring someone whose primary service was the conversion of people to a certain faith with a Rotunda ceremony violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

"Not that he shouldn't be lauded, but does he deserve to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol? And once you open that door, where do you stop?" Perry told the Washington Post. "Lying in honor should be someone who served their country. Well, how did he do that?"

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state/church watchdog, has formally objected to the rare national honor being accorded to Graham. The posthumous rotunda tribute should be reserved for those known for civic and secular achievers. "The wisest path to social harmony and unity is for Congress to leave religion to adherents," the FFRF noted in its complaint.