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Judge Nixes 'National Prayer Day' But Obama Administration Will Fight to Protect Christian Right

A federal judge ruled that National Prayer Day's 'sole purpose is to encourage citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise.'
 
 
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Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect breaking news.

On Tax Day last week, a federal judge in Wisconsin overturned a 58-year infringement on Americans' constitutional rights. In her ruling, Judge Barbara B. Crabb wrote that the National Day of Prayer Proclamation violates the First Amendment.

The case, Freedom From Religion Foundation v Barack Obama & Robert Gibbs , was originally filed against George W. Bush in 2008. In the judgment, Crabb wrote that the National Day of Prayer "goes beyond mere 'acknowledgment' of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience." She continued by quoting a legal precedent: "When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual's decision about whether and how to worship."

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), said she was very happy with the judge's decision. According to Gaylor, the FFRF -- a Madison-based organization that promotes the separation between church and state and educates on atheism, agnosticism and nontheism -- decided to file the suit because it was a "good way to show the entanglement between private religion and government."

The National Day of Prayer has been rather entangled with private religion since its official roots in 1952, when the Rev. Billy Graham suggested it as the only way to bring Americans back to God. Members of Congress introduced a joint resolution for an annual prayer day, with one senator calling it a measure against "the corrosive forces of communism which seek simultaneously to destroy our democratic way of life and the faith in Almighty God on which it is based."

Until 1988, each president picked a date for the National Day of Prayer, but that year, Ronald Reagan amended the law so that it would be held each year on the first Thursday in May. While Reagan's proclamation made the prayer day seem universal and inclusive, saying all could pray in "his or her own manner" and including meditation alongside prayer, it also included a quote from Leviticus in the Christian Bible and references "God," indicating monotheism.

Though the prayer day is touted by supporters as a way for all Americans of all faiths to come together, critics believe it is nothing more than a Christian National Day of Prayer. It started with Billy Graham, moved onto Reagan and the culture warriors, and today it is managed mostly by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, an organization whose name makes it sound governmental, but which is actually entirely housed within Focus on the Family, a major actor in the Christian right's efforts to influence public policy.

According to Gaylor, the FFRF's research showed that in 2008, 30 state governors used the exact wording, Scripture verse or some version of the press release provided by the Task Force in their official proclamations. That same year, President Bush used the Task Force's language as his own National Day of Prayer Proclamation.

Judge Crabb, in her ruling, referenced the National Day of Prayer Task Force 's open exclusion of non-Christian groups, particularly Muslims, at its events. And, like the FFRF, the judge saw that the National Day of Prayer generally seemed to exclude non-Christian, non-Abrahamic, non-messianic religions -- not to mention all other belief systems and worldviews, including atheism.

This led Crabb to rule that the National Day of Prayer violates the First Amendment , which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Since the ruling went public, the Christian right has been up in arms. Sarah Palin denounced it and called the United States "a Christian nation." Fox News found a so-called constitutional law scholar to say the ruling was tantamount to refusing individual Americans the right to perform a prayer day ritual on their own.

On Thursday, the Justice Department decided to appeal the decision -- an unsurprising move given that the Obama administration's lawyers used historical revisionism similar to Palin's. In one example, the government's lawyers said all presidents since 1775 had been for prayer proclamations, though the historical record shows that, at the very least, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and James Madison were strongly against them. In another, they argued that George Washington had prayed at Valley Forge, a statement that does not stand up to history either.

Lost among the furor, though, is recognition, Gaylor says, that the ruling is a "very tactful" one that "in no way is a value judgment on prayer or on a private day of prayer." Indeed, Crabb's ruling read: "No one can doubt the important role that prayer plays in the spiritual life of a believer. In the best of times, people may pray as a way of expressing joy and thanks; during times of grief, many find that prayer provides comfort. Others may pray to give praise, seek forgiveness, ask for guidance or find the truth."

Recognizing how important prayer is to people, however, does not mean that the government can enact a statute that calls for 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 wrote.

Last week's ruling does not say praying is unconstitutional -- instead, it simply bars government endorsement of this particular religious ritual over any other.

Austin Dacey, author of The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life , is not surprised at the misunderstanding and anger directed at FFRF, Judge Crabb and secularist supporters of the ruling. In this case, secularists are putting themselves in the position of taking away a historical privilege, albeit an unconstitutional one, Dacey says.

This makes the "secularist appear to be self-interested and anti-American. So I think strategically, secularists need to think about how to position themselves and portray themselves as they truly are -- as friends of freedom and equality," Dacey said. "They have to be clear that this is being done as much for the benefit of the religious as the non-religious."

Both Dacey and Gaylor feel that National Day of Prayer's worst affront is that it calls on "all" Americans to pray.

In Gaylor's view, "this excludes [all non-Christians] as Americans, it disenfranchises us. It does the insidious thing of equating piety with good citizenship. Or being an American." Dacey agrees: the prayer day "says that some Americans are preferred members of the political community."

Meanwhile, the White House has said it will press forward with this year's National Day of Prayer, slated for May 6. And the Christian right's National Day of Prayer Task Force is already using the loss in court as a way to raise more money. The FFRF has received only $400 in unsolicited donations since news of the win last week.

Supporters of the separation between church and state "need to put their money where their mouth is," says Gaylor. "We can't let the religious right cash in on our victory."

Not many Christian leaders have yet voiced public support for the ruling. But one, a pastor in Cedarsburg, Wisconsin did not mince words.

"I find it both troubling and dangerous that so many zealous believers in any religion want to legislate their particular understanding of faith and God for everyone else," the Rev. Dr. Janis J. Kinens of Advent Lutheran Church told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel . "We don't need to look too far to see the horrific and devastating results of a theocracy form of government."

Where are the other Christians whose own freedom of religion has been won by the United States' secularism?