Federal judge: National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional

US District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the National Day of Prayer violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on government endorsement of religion.

By , Staff writer

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    A resident of Dade City, Fla., watched as scores of balloons were released at the end of the annual National Day of Prayer rally, which was held on the steps of the historic Pasco County Courthouse on May 3, 2009.
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A federal judge in Wisconsin declared Thursday that the US law authorizing a National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.

US District Judge Barbara Crabb said the federal statute violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on government endorsement of religion.

She issued a 66-page decision and enjoined President Obama from issuing an executive order calling for the celebration of a National Day of Prayer.

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The National Day of Prayer was first authorized by Congress in 1952. Since 1988, the date has been set as the first Thursday in May.

The judge stayed her own injunction pending the resolution of any appeals.

“I understand that many may disagree with [my] conclusion and some may even view it as critical of prayer or those who pray. That is unfortunate,” Judge Crabb wrote.

'The government may not endorse a religious message'

“A determination that the government may not endorse a religious message is not a determination that the message itself is harmful, unimportant, or undeserving of dissemination,” she said. “Rather it is part of the effort to carry out the Founders’ plan of preserving religious liberty to the fullest extent possible in a pluralistic society.”

The action came as a result of a lawsuit filed by members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin group founded in 1976. The group is pledged to promote the concept of separation of church and state. It also seeks to educate the public on matters of “nontheism.”

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, praised Judge Crabb’s ruling.

“This decision is a tremendous victory for religious liberty,” he said. “Congress has no business telling Americans when or how to pray.”

Lynn added: “The Constitution forbids the government to meddle in religious matters. Decisions about worship should be made by individuals without direction from elected officials. That’s what freedom is all about.”

Navigating between US Supreme Court rulings

Judge Crabb said the case challenging the prayer statute arose at the intersection of competing lines of US Supreme Court jurisprudence. On one side, the court has said that the government violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause when it endorses a particular religious belief or practice, such as prayer.

On the other side, the court has also ruled that some public displays of religion are merely “ceremonial deism,” reflecting a general religious heritage, but not crossing the line to unconstitutional endorsement.

Crabb said in her view the key test between these two conflicting lines of decision is whether the government’s conduct “serves a significant secular purpose and is not a call for religious action on the part of citizens.”

She said the law establishing a National Day of Prayer cannot meet that test. “It goes beyond mere acknowledgment of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context,” the judge wrote.

“In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience,” she wrote.

Judge Crabb said her ruling is not a “judgment on the value of prayer or the millions of Americans who believe in its power.”

She added: “Recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean 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.”

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