A Wisconsin federal judge has ruled that the National Day of
Prayer is unconstitutional.
In her 66-page opinion Thursday, U.S. District Court
District Judge Barbara B. Crabb wrote that the prayer day violates the separation of church and state. More than merely
acknowledging religion, she said the day’s purpose “is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently
religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context.”
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation filed
the lawsuit in October 2008, claiming its members experienced “concrete injury”
because of a 1988 federal law requiring the president to issue a proclamation
each year declaring the first Thursday in May the National Day of Prayer.
The group argued that the prayer day makes them feel
excluded as nonreligious persons, and that it creates the perception that the
government favors Americans who pray.
The court noted that
President Obama, who observed last year’s National Day of Prayer privately but
issued a proclamation calling Americans to pray, has said the statute is simply an “acknowledgment of the role of
religion in American life” and is no different from government practices that
courts have upheld.
Crabb disagreed. “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,” she
wrote. “In fact, it is because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have
such a powerful effect on a community that the government may not use its
authority to try to influence an individual’s decision whether and when to
Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) are urging
President Obama to appeal the decision. The group launched a grassroots effort
called Save the National Day of Prayer that has more than 170,000 supporters on
“The National Day of Prayer provides an opportunity for all
Americans to pray voluntarily according to their own faith–and does not
promote any particular religion or form of religious observance,” said ADF
Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster. “It does not violate the Establishment Clause
of the First Amendment, and this decision should be appealed.”
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) plans to file a brief challenging the ruling. The group
previously filed an amicus brief defending the National Day of Prayer on behalf
of 31 members of Congress, including Rep. J. Randy Forbes, chairman of the
Congressional Prayer Caucus.
“If the appeals court fails to reverse this decision, we’re
confident the Supreme Court will hear the case and ultimately determine that
such proclamations and observances like the National Day of Prayer not only
reflect our nation’s rich history, but are indeed consistent with the Establishment
Clause of the First Amendment,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the
The suit originally named as a defendant Shirley Dobson,
chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force. In March, Crabb dismissed
Dobson from the complaint, saying the
plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because they failed to show that she injured
The annual prayer event was created in 1952 by a joint
resolution of the United States Congress, and signed into law by President
Harry S. Truman. In 1988, Congress set the first Thursday in May as the day for
presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans to pray.
The court order does not demand that this year’s
National Day of Prayer, scheduled for May 6, be cancelled. It also does not
stop future presidential proclamations from being issued and will not go into
effect unless the decision still stands after all appeals are exhausted.