The National Day of Prayer Decision: A Victory to Savor

Thank you so much to the American Humanist Association’s Feminist Caucus for this lovely award, which I’m delighted to share with my Humanist co-Heroine, Meg Bowman. She was my intrepid, undaunted, indefatigable Feminist Caucus co-chair for many years. She’s also a tough speaker to follow. So since Meg has given the big picture, I’m going to tell you a little story about our National Day of Prayer victory—how we came to win a beautiful federal court ruling on April 15 declaring the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional.

Victories this sweet—and this historic—don’t often happen, and it isn’t every day that you get an order from a court enjoining the president of the United States, so it’s a victory to savor while we have it.

It began very innocuously in the spring of 2008 when I got a complaint from a Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) member in Burnett County, Wisconsin, about a loose-cannon sheriff there who was organizing his eighth National Day of Prayer breakfast using his official letterhead, county money, and featuring a speaker who happened to be the Wisconsin State Supreme Court Justice-elect, Michael Gableman. Boy, was this a violation. The description of Judge Gableman as a man deeply committed to “our Lord, his religion, and his profession” (I love the order of that) caught my eye because Gableman had unseated the only African-American State Supreme Court Justice through unwholesome corporate partnerships and other nefarious means, and he was under investigation.

Now, we couldn’t really write a letter to a seated State Supreme Court Justice but we could write a letter to the sheriff, which I did, and I told him, “Quit sponsoring the National Day of Prayer through your office.” I then pointed out in a press release that Congress should never have inaugurated a National Day of Prayer because it simply encourages public officials with theocratic tendencies to misuse their public office to promote or endorse religion. The sheriff fought back: He initially refused to answer my open records request. He described himself in the media as “a man of the Lord.” He acted persecuted. He attacked us, and I wanted to sue him very badly.

So I called up FFRF’s regular litigation attorney, Rich Bolton, who looked over the facts and agreed to take the case. But we couldn’t find a plaintiff. The initial complainant had an airtight reason why she couldn’t go public, and our other members either didn’t want to or had other conflicts.

Stymied and thwarted and very disappointed, I bitterly complained to Rich that the National Day of Prayer ruins my life every spring with its violations that I can never do anything about because federal law requires the President of the United States to declare a National Day of Prayer and to give a prayer proclamation. Rich was very intrigued.

It always pays to have a fresh pair of eyes look at a problem. When Rich looked at the website of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, he realized that this private, evangelical Christian group, which has been accused of hijacking the National Day of Prayer, looked like a government agency. They had issued a proclamation and were touting the fact that not only had President George W. Bush adopted their wording in 2008, but that thirty of the fifty governors who’d issued prayer proclamations that year had done so as well. The group likewise bragged that they had provided Bible verses linking piety and prayer in hosting 30,000 to 40,000 events a year around the country—on public property wherever possible—and their website made it very clear that they only recruited coordinators, volunteers, and speakers who shared evangelical beliefs that the Bible is inerrant and that “Jesus Christ is the one true Lord.”

The divisiveness of these events had made the news in recent years with reports of Hindus, Muslims, and Jews being excluded. And of course FFRF fielded complaints from nonbelievers about the injury of being told by our president to set aside an entire day each year for prayer, told to go to church if possible to pray, and even told what to pray about. Each year Americans are given a laundry list by the president that usually links patriotism and piety.

And so Rich looked at this huge big picture and he said, “Wait a minute. The government and an evangelical Christian ministry are working hand in glove. This shows governmental preference and endorsement for one particular religious conviction.” And bingo, we had ourselves a federal lawsuit that was a lot bigger than Burnett County. So we decided to file a suit against President George W. Bush and we also named his press secretary since this is the person who technically issues the prayer proclamation. And then Rich had a genius idea to further name Shirley Dobson of the National Day of Prayer Task Force as co-defendant, and boy, was she mad about that. And so after we filed the lawsuit, we learned the story behind the creation of the National Day of Prayer. I thought I knew a lot about it, but it was truly a revelation.

In 1952 Reverend Billy Graham led a six-week crusade at the Capitol, and at one point he stood on the Capitol steps and proclaimed: “What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be to see the leaders of our country kneeling before Almighty God in prayer every year.” So he proposed that Congress require the president to issue an annual prayer proclamation on the National Day of Prayer, and it was almost instantaneously enacted by Congress. One of the champions of the proposal was a conservative Democratic senator named Absalom Robertson of Virginia, whose son is none other than televangelist Pat Robertson.

We then discovered that the federal law was based on a lie. It’s in the congressional record that the founders of our country prayed when they adopted the Constitution but this is a total fabrication, a case of the religious right conflating and confusing the Articles of Confederation, ratified by the Second Continental Congress in 1781, with the Constitution that supplanted it in 1789. They did pray over the Articles of Confederation, which were a historically dismal failure. They did not pray when they adopted our secular and godless Constitution, the longest-living Constitution in history. (My mother’s motto is: “Nothing fails like prayer.” And nothing succeeds like a godless Constitution.)

But the National Day of Prayer lived on and by 1988 the nature of the event had become much more aggressive. Once again, it was the religious right leading the charge. Vonette Bright, the co-founder of Campus Crusade for Christ along with her husband, Bill Bright, was serving on the somewhat stealth National Prayer Committee. She personally lobbied Congress to designate a fixed date for the National Day of Prayer, which had been a floating date (any day but a Sunday was the law). She argued that we needed to solidify a day—the first Thursday in May—in order to “cover the nation and its leaders in prayer.”

Pat Boone was the co-chair of the National Prayer Committee. He testified on behalf of the bill complaining how hard it was to mobilize politicians and mobilize the people when the date kept changing. Sponsors included Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) and Jesse Helms (R-NC), who put into the record their very clearly unsecular purpose to help evangelical groups mobilize prayer. President Ronald Reagan signed that bill immediately into law. He invited evangelicals to a prayerful ceremony at the White House and this became a GOP custom. Vonette Bright went on to become the first chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, whose mission is to write and publish the proclamations, give them to the president, and then twist the arms of politicians, including all fifty governors, to sign them. Shirley Dobson, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson’s wife, later became the honorary chair of the task force, which is still based at Focus on the Family’s headquarters in Colorado Springs.

In January 2009, after filing the lawsuit, we then received the Bush administration’s fifty-six-page motion to dismiss. (Soon after President Obama was inaugurated and he became our defendant.) The motion was full of religious right disinformation and insinuations; every line had some myth or lie that we needed to rectify and it became our goal, if nothing else, to correct the historic record. I, Dan, and our staff attorney, who had just been hired, spent most of that February researching while Rich took on the standing issues and all the really serious legal hurdles.

We then spent another month on discovery against the Obama administration and they did discovery against us. We turned our office upside down and in the end gathered all the information—thirty years of complaints FFRF had received from our membership and all the things we had done to try to combat the National Day of Prayer—and it made our standing. We had never worked so hard or fought so hard to stay in court.

Just a little aside: the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) was representing Shirley Dobson and the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is Pat Robertson’s legal arm, was representing some thirty members of Congress who wanted to intervene. The ADF is a Christian legal society with an annual budget over $30 million. They are anti-abortion, anti-gay, mainly pro-theocracy, and they had the nerve in their motions and in their publicity to continually accuse FFRF of filing our National Day of Prayer challenge to make money. We spent $50,000 on legal expenses last year on this case alone, which is a lot for the first round of a lawsuit but it was a very complicated lawsuit. Our total intake for our legal fund in 2009 was only $52,000. We spent more than $112,000 (we have nine cases going). So while we don’t make money on our lawsuits—I wish we did—the religious right is cashing in.

The case went to rest after December. I was deposed for nearly a day by an Obama attorney and an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund. And toward the end of this very exhausting day, the Obama attorney got kind of tough with me and set up a series of yes-or-no questions to try to make the National Day of Prayer look innocuous by comparing it with Columbus Day. Did I know there was a federal law that we have to observe Columbus Day? Yes. Did I know that the president had to give a proclamation? Yes. Did I know that there are people who didn’t like it? Yes. The Native Americans had protested it, did I know that? Yes. Did I know that, nevertheless, the president asks all people to observe Columbus Day? Aside from the apples-to-oranges differences between Columbus Day and an establishment clause violation, I finally pointed out, with some asperity, that the difference between Columbus Day and the National Day of Prayer is that while there really was a historic Columbus, nobody can prove there is a God who answers prayers. And that was that.

On April 15 we were overjoyed to learn that Federal Judge Barbara Crabb had issued a sixty-six-page ruling in our favor. (If you haven’t read the decision, you can find it at; it’s big type and doesn’t take long to read). In it Judge Crabb writes: “In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience. 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.” The Obama administration waited less than a week to appeal and Judge Crabb did enjoin the president but she stayed that pending an appeal, so we have been quite busy since then.

We signed on more than a thousand new members to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and fielded requests for information from thousands more who liked the decision. But mostly, we’ve been very busy trying to capitalize on the momentum of our case by taking it to the court of public opinion. And we hope to continue to educate people, for example, that it is a fact that the United States rests on a secular Constitution. We don’t want to let the religious right hijack it.

And now, I do want to conclude with a little cheerleading about the role of women in the freethought and secular humanist movements. There’s a film called Agora that recently received a limited release in the United States—it’s about the bona fide humanist heroine, Hypatia, the great female scholar and philosopher, and the head of the University of Alexandria in the fourth century. (Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia and Alejandro Amenabár directs). It tells the story of what happened when Christianity took over Alexandria. Hypatia was literally torn into pieces by a mob of Christian monks during the sacking of Alexandria that basically ushered in the Dark Ages. As my friend, the late Ruth Green, author of The Born Again Skeptic’s Guide to the Bible, put it, “There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages.” And I think one of the reasons that women have played leadership roles in the humanist and freethought movements is because we have so much to lose if religion is united with government.

More people have been killed in the name of religion or a god than for any other reason, but I think feminists in the West today are especially aware of the fact of the witch hunts. We know that tens of thousands, if not millions of women were individually hunted down, prosecuted, tortured, and put to death because of one verse in the Bible. It’s a book we’re still told is a good book and one that upwards of 45 percent of the population thinks is literal and which many theocratic groups are insisting should be the basis of our government.

So it’s true that the primary catalyst in founding the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the wake-up call for my mother and me, was seeing the role of organized religion in opposing women’s rights. We felt that we needed to get to the root of the problem; in the thrilling words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “We needed to strike the blow at the fountain of all tyranny, religious superstition, priestly power, and the canon law.” And also look at the religious tyranny against gay rights and marriage equality, stem cell research, against the teaching and understanding of evolution, and why in the United States we find ourselves in this outlandish and frightening predicament where more than half of the adult population embraces creationism. This makes the United States an ideal culture in which to nurture more Christian fundamentalists and Tea Partiers, those who Richard Dawkins calls the “faith-heads” and Clarence Darrow called the “clock-stoppers.”

Our country’s unwholesome allegiance to religion has retarded progress and it threatens our future. And as Ruth Green observed, “Freedom depends on freethinkers.” We can all be freedom fighters and it doesn’t take that much work. I would challenge everyone to do one simple thing at least, and that is to always correct the historical record. Never let the big lies of the religious right go uncorrected. That’s the way we will restore respect for the uniquely American principle of separation between church and state.

Update: Forty-one religious right groups—primarily evangelical Christian—along with twenty-nine states and sixty-seven members of Congress in a total of seven “friend of the court” (amicus) briefs have officially called on an appeals court to overturn the federal ruling in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Obama declaring the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. More than a third of state attorneys general urged the appeals court to overturn Judge Crabb’s ruling. On July 1, the Obama administration filed a fifty-nine-page appeal, plus appendix, before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. This fall, an equal number of amicus briefs is expected to be filed in support of FFRF and Judge Crabb’s historic ruling. A ruling by the appeals court will likely be handed down by summer 2011.

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