Judge rules National Day of Prayer 'unconstitutional'

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MADISON, Wis. — The Obama administration will appeal the decision by a federal judge that ruled April 15 that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional, violating the First Amendment.

U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb's ruling came less than a month away from the 59th annual observance on Thursday, May 6. However, organizers of the National Day of Prayer say, that this will not affect this year's annual observance because the ruling will not take effect until all appeals are exhausted in the case.

"Prayer is never unconstitutional," says Bishop Council Nedd, In God We Trust's National Chairman.

"American Presidents have led this nation in prayer since its founding. Yesterday's court ruling declaring the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional is one of the most egregious examples of out of control judges making law from the bench," said Nedd. "The Administration must appeal this decision and the President should still issue the traditional proclamation next May. Anything less will be considered a slap in the face to American people."

Joel Oster, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, echoed these sentiments saying, "The National Day of Prayer provides an opportunity for all Americans to pray voluntarily according to their own faith. It does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and this decision should be appealed."

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.

 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, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan.

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 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 www.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."

The White House decision to appeal the ruling was revealed April 22, a day after members of Congress gathered at a Capitol Hill news conference to urge the White House to work vigorously to overturn the decision.

National Day of Prayer ruling

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BP news and wire reports were used in this story.