“National Day of Prayer” unconstitutional

A Wisconsin federal district court held that the federal statute which designates the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer violates the Establishment Clause.

President Obama plans to issue a proclamation anyway.


Religion Clause writes

In an important decision yesterday, a Wisconsin federal district court held that the federal statute which designates the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer violates the Establishment Clause. InFreedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Obama, (WD WI, April 15, 2010), the court, in a 66-page opinion, concluded that 36 USC Sec. 119 goes beyond mere acknowledgement of religion. It endorses and encourages citizens to engage in prayer. Examining the legislative history of the law, the court said:

This legislative history supports the view that the purpose of the National Day of Prayer was to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, and in particular the Judeo-Christian view of prayer. One might argue that members of Congress voiced secular purposes: to protect against “the corrosive forces of communism” and promote peace. That is true, but the references to these purposes do nothing to diminish the message of endorsement. If anything, they contribute to a sense of disparagement by associating communism with people who do not pray. A fair inference that may be drawn from these statements is that “Americans” pray; if you do not believe in the power of prayer, you are not a true American. Identifying good citizenship with a particular religious belief is precisely the type of message prohibited by the establishment clause.

Conceding that much of the controversy had resulted from activities of the private National Day of Prayer Task Force, the court said that “government officials, including former Presidents, have sometimes aligned themselves so closely with those exclusionary groups that it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the government’s message and that of the private group.”

The AP says:

President Barack Obama’s administration has countered that the statute simply acknowledges the role of religion in the United States. Obama issued a proclamation last year but did not hold public events with religious leaders as former President George W. Bush had done.

Crabb wrote that her ruling shouldn’t be considered a bar to any prayer days until all appeals are exhausted. U.S. Justice Department attorneys who represented the federal government in the case were reviewing the ruling Thursday afternoon, agency spokesman Charles Miller said. He declined further comment.

Obama spokesman Matt Lehrich said in an e-mail to The Associated Press the president still plans to issue a proclamation for the next prayer day.

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