National Day of Prayer ruling called 'egregious'
MADISON, Wis. (BP)--A federal judge ruled April 15 that a statute that sets a day for the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional, amounting to a governmental call for religious action.
The ruling, by U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb in Wisconsin, will not affect the 59th annual observance of the National Day of Prayer on Thursday, May 6, though, because the ruling will not take effect until all appeals are exhausted.
"This is an egregious and revealing decision," Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said. "It shows the brooding hostility toward religion that exists at some levels of federal, state and local government in this country.
"I am confident that this wrongheaded and hostile decision will be overturned at the appellate and Supreme Court level. Every one of our founding fathers would be astounded at the wrong-headedness of this decision," Land said.
The case began in 2008 when the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison-based group of atheists and agnostics, filed a lawsuit against the federal government claiming that the day of prayer violates the separation of church and state.
Originally the case was against President Bush but was changed to reflect President Obama's succession, and now the Obama administration must appeal the decision within 60 days in order for the tradition to continue.
In 1952, President Truman signed into law a joint resolution of Congress to set aside an annual National Day of Prayer, and Congress amended the law in 1988 to establish a more particular date.
The law reads, "The president shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups and as individuals."
The National Day of Prayer Task Force, in a news release April 15, noted that the tradition of designating an official day of prayer actually began with the Continental Congress in 1775, after which President Washington issued a National Day of Thanksgiving Proclamation.
Ever since, the task force said, American presidents have made similar proclamations and "appeals to the Almighty." Historically, all 50 governors, along with presidents, have issued proclamations in honor of the National Day of Prayer.
But Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the National Day of Prayer creates hostility toward atheists and questions their patriotism.
"Our government is saying that we are not good Americans because we don't pray," Gaylor said, according to The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville.
In a 66-page decision Thursday, Crabb, who was appointed by President Carter in 1979, said the National Day of Prayer "serves no purpose but to encourage a religious exercise, making it difficult for a reasonable observer to see the statute as anything other than a religious endorsement."
No one can doubt the important role that prayer plays in the spiritual life of a believer, Crabb said, but "recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic."
Crabb cited former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's remarks in another case: "Government cannot endorse the religious practices and beliefs of some citizens without sending a clear message to nonadherents that they are outsiders or less than full members of the political community."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, though elated over the judge's ruling, expressed disappointment with the Obama administration for what transpired immediately after the decision.
"A Twitter from the White House went out Thursday afternoon soon after the decision was announced: 'As he did last year, President Obama intends to recognize a National Day of Prayer.' The Twitter links to the 2009 presidential NDP proclamation," the foundation said in a news release.
Gaylor said, "President Obama is a constitutional scholar, and knows the issues at stake. He couldn't possibly have read the 66-page historic ruling by Judge Crabb at the time of this tweet."
Though he issued a prayer proclamation last year, Obama did not hold any public events at the White House as previous presidents, including Bush, have done.
Shirley Dobson, chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, said a small group of dissenters should not be allowed to deprive the entire population of a time-honored tradition.
"Since the days of our Founding Fathers, the government has protected and encouraged public prayer and other expressions of dependence on the Almighty," Dobson said.
"This is a concerted effort by a small but determined number of people who have tried to prohibit all references to the Creator in the public square, whether it be the Ten Commandments, the Pledge of Allegiance, or the simple act of corporate prayer -- this is unconscionable for a free society," she said.
Earlier Dobson was dismissed from the lawsuit, having originally been one of the defendants.
"The lawsuit against Mrs. Dobson was based on the ridiculous argument that a private citizen can violate the law by praying, and it is just another example of one radical organization's allergic reaction to anything involving God," Joel Oster, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which advocated for Dobson, said.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation "is showcasing to America that its true agenda is not to just silence the government but private citizens as well," Oster said in March.
Though it excused Dobson from the case, the court allowed the FFRF to continue its challenge of the federal statute.
The prayer day task force and Alliance Defense Fund attorneys are urging Obama to appeal Crabb's decision, and they're asking people to contact the White House to express support of the National Day of Prayer.
"Long term, this type of opinion, if not corrected on appeal, will continue the erosion of our religious heritage and freedom," the task force said. "It allows a handful of disgruntled people to use the courts to restrict the genuine constitutional rights enjoyed by the majority of Americans merely because those few people claim to be 'offended.'
"While the National Day of Prayer Task Force will be able to promote a national day of prayer on its own, government acknowledgement of that day is in jeopardy if this opinion is allowed to stand," the committee, which develops a theme and promotes the day each year, said.
Concerned citizens can sign a petition in support of the National Day of Prayer that will be sent to Obama by visiting savethendop.org.
The American Center for Law and Justice represented itself and 31 members of Congress in a friend-of-the-court brief defending the National Day of Prayer in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. Jay Sekulow, ACLJ's chief counsel, said he is confident the decision will be overturned.
"This is the first step in what could be a lengthy legal process that ultimately puts this issue before the Supreme Court," Sekulow said. "This issue could very well be decided by the next appointee to the high court. An issue like this underscores the importance of why it's so critical for the nominee to answer direct questions about their judicial philosophy, how they view the role of judges, and their view of the rule of law."
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.