Federal appeals court affirms National Day of Prayer


CHICAGO — A federal appeals court overturned a 2010 ruling that declared the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit—based in Chicago and representing the states of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin—ruled April 14 that the plaintiffs, including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, were not harmed by the annual event.

In her ruling a year ago U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb determined the observance violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

"In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience," Crabb said, adding, "The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy."

The Obama administration appealed her ruling to the Circuit Court a week later.

Writing for the appeals court, chief judge Frank Easterbrook disagreed with Crabb, saying the proclamation imposes no requirement on a person and therefore no one is hurt by a request that can be declined.

"Those who do not agree with a president's statement may speak in opposition to it, they are not entitled to silence the speech of which they disapprove," Esterbrook, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, wrote, later adding, "Plaintiffs have not altered their conduct one whit or incurred any cost in time or money. All they have is disagreement with the President's action. But unless all limits on standing are to be abandoned, a feeling of alienation cannot suffice as injury in fact."

New review sought
Officials with the Freedom From Religion Foundation said after the decision that it plans to ask the appeals court to review the decision en banc, which means by a full panel.

"We are very troubled by the court's conclusion that congressionally mandated endorsements of religion by the president amount to no more than 'hurt feelings,'" said Richard L. Bolton, the foundation's litigation attorney.

Foundation co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said she believed the ruling was "cowardly" by not focusing on the merits of the case.

"Our challenge is so strong, our claim is so correct," Gaylor said. "The First Amendment says, 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.' 'No law' should mean no law!"

The Alliance Defense Fund, which represented the task force in court disagreed, arguing that the observance was voluntary.

"Public officials should be able to participate in public prayer activities just as America's founders did," ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot said in a statement. "The 7th Circuit has clearly understood that the Freedom From Religion Foundation simply had no legal standing to attack the federal statute setting a day for the National Day of Prayer simply because the group is offended by religion."

The latest ruling means the 60th annual observance planned for May 5 can continue with interruption. The National Day of Prayer was enacted in 1952 by an act of Congress. The theme for this year is "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," and is based on Psalm 91:2: "I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust."

Shirley Dobson, chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, lauded the ruling.

"Since the days of our Founding Fathers, the government has protected and encouraged public prayer and other expressions of dependence on the Almighty," she said. "Prayer is an indispensable part of our heritage, and as citizens, we must remain faithful in our commitment to intercede for our nation during this pivotal and challenging time."

Michael Calhoun, director of strategic communication for the prayer task force, said the ruling endorsed the concept of religion freedom as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, a concept that he believes is becoming increasingly threatened.

 "I can't think of a time in recent memory when it has been more important to pray for wisdom and direction for our country and its leaders... I hope millions will join the ongoing efforts of our NDP Task Force to that end."

The tradition of designating an official day of prayer began with the Continental Congress in 1775. Afterward, President Washington issued a National Day of Thanksgiving Proclamation.

For more information on the observance, visit www.nationaldayofprayer.org.

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