National Day of Prayer Deemed Unconstitutional
In 1952, after being passed unanimously by both houses of Congress, a National Day of Prayer was established. President Truman signed it into law. Thirty-six years later, under President Reagan, the first Thursday in May was designated as the National Day of Prayer.
President Reagan stated, "On our National Day of Prayer, then, we join together as people of many faiths to petition God to show us His mercy and His love, to heal our weariness and uphold our hope, that we might live ever mindful of His justice and thankful for His blessing."
During his presidency, Bill Clinton gave a statement each year regarding the National Day of Prayer. In 1995 he stated, "I call upon every citizen of this great Nation to gather together on that day to pray, each in his or her own manner, for God's continued guidance and blessing."
In 2002, President George W. Bush stated in his proclamation that the two purposes of the National Day of Prayer were: "...to reaffirm the role of prayer in our society and to honor the religious diversity our freedom permits..."
This year, 2010, President Barack Obama has included this statement in his proclamation for the National Day of Prayer, "Throughout our history, whether in times of great joy and thanksgiving, or in times of great challenge and uncertainty, Americans have turned to prayer. In prayer, we have expressed gratitude and humility, sought guidance and forgiveness, and received inspiration and assistance, both in good times and in bad."
In 1999, then Governor of Minnesota, Jesse Ventura, was one of only a few governors in the United States who refused to issue a proclamation for the National Day of Prayer. He signed a statement of recognition but did not offer state support.
Ventura stated "There are people out there who are Atheists, who don't believe at all. They are all citizens of Minnesota, and I have to respect that."
He was criticized by Minnesota Family Council President, Tom Prichard, who discussed Ventura's proclamation for the Rolling Stones. Prichard said, "In a time of school shootings and international turmoil, we should be encouraging prayer all the times. I would think the governor at the very least would give the same recognition to a day of prayer that he gave to Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones."
In 2000, the Texas Metroplex Atheists held peaceful demonstrations in Texas, while similar demonstrations were held in Florida and Michigan to protest the National Day of Prayer. Since then, Atheists have continued to protest the National Day of Prayer.
In 2008, The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Bush Administration claiming that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison-based group of atheists and agnostics whose goal is to block the President from making an annual proclamation which is the custom of the event.
In April 2010, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, Wisconsin, ruled that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. She wrote, "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."
Judge Crabb says the National Day of Prayer violates the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment. She said, "The only issue decided in this case is that the federal government may not endorse prayer in a statute." She has also said the the National Day of Prayer makes those who do not pray feel marginalized and that they "suffer a distinct harm."
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In an article written by Jim Daly, President of Focus on the Family, he reacted to the ruling by stating, "By Judge Crabb's standards, if the federal recognition of the National Day of Prayer is illegal, so is Christmas Day and Easter Sunday."
Daly went on to say that, "Legal scholars agree that the Establishment Clause was devised to prevent the United States government from declaring and financially supporting a "national religion" much like Great Britain did with the Church of England."
The Justice Department has been urged to file an appeal by the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
According to Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex., "The decision undermines the values of religious freedom that America was founded upon."
Franklin Graham, this year's honorary chairman of the National Day of Prayer says, "At a time when our country is waging two wars, approval ratings for Congress are at historic lows, unemployment is at a 70-year high and financial institutions have collapsed around us, I can't imagine anyone seriously opposing a National Day of Prayer."
Graham also stated that there is no requirement that people pray.
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), said the decision was badly thought out.
"It is unfortunate that this court failed to understand that a day set aside for prayer for the country represents a time-honored tradition that embraces the First Amendment, not violates it," Sekulow said.