Obama’s National Day of Prayer Not Constitutional, Judge Rules

A U.S. District Court Judge in Madison, Wis., has ruled that the congressionally mandated National Day of Prayer proclamation is unconstitutional. In a ruling issued on April 15, 2010, Judge Barbara Crabb wrote that the statute that mandates the presidential proclamation “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. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience.”

Implemented in 1952 by an act of Congress, the National Day of Prayer statute requires the president to designate the first Thursday of the month of May as the National Day of Prayer, during which, according to the statute, “the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.” This year, the National Day of Prayer will fall on May 6.

The ruling is on a lawsuit originally filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation on October 3, 2008. The defendant named at that time was President George W. Bush, but it shifted to President Barack Obama upon his inauguration. FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor hailed the ruling, stating “We are so gratified and delighted that Judge Crabb in her solid decision rejected revisionist history and decided this case on the merits.”

The American Center for Law and Justice, a right-wing Christian legal organization that filed an amicus brief on behalf of 31 members of Congress on the side of the defendants, promised to continue supporting the National Day of Prayer through the appeals process. Writing on the organization’s website, ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow asserted that a “day set aside for prayer for the country represents a time-honored tradition that embraces the First Amendment, not violates it.”

In her ruling, Judge Barbara Crabb also noted that even though prayer is an important part of the lives of millions of Americans, nevertheless it is highly personal and should not be subject to any degree of government involvement. 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 pray.”

While Judge Crabb did enjoin President Obama from issuing the National Day of Prayer proclamation, the injunction will be stayed until all appeals are completed. Therefore, shortly after the ruling, the White House stated via Twitter that the president will still issue the National Day of Prayer proclamation for 2010.

David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association, called upon President Obama to recognize the National Day of Reason, also scheduled for May 6, instead of the National Day of Prayer. He noted, “The National Day of Reason includes all Americans and calls attention to a value that’s essential to effective democracy.”

The stated purpose of the National Day of Reason is “to celebrate reason–a concept all Americans can support–and to raise public awareness about the persistent threat to religious liberty posed by government intrusion into the private sphere of worship.”