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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Religion

Mike Levine

Washington, DC

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Judge: Natl Day Of Prayer Unconstitutional

April 15, 2010 - 4:49 PM | by: Mike Levine

The National Day of Prayer, honored in the United States for more than a half-century, is unconstitutional, a federal judge in Wisconsin has ruled.

In a 66-page opinion issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb said the holiday violates the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment, which creates a separation of church and state.

“I understand that many may disagree with that conclusion and some may even view it as a criticism of prayer or those who pray,” Crabb said in her opinion. “That is unfortunate. A determination that the government may not endorse a religious message is not a determination that the message itself is harmful, unimportant or undeserving of dissemination.”

The opinion comes in a case filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group of self-described “atheists” and “agnostics.”

Crabb said her ruling is based on “relevant case law,” and it does not prevent religious groups from organizing prayer services or prevent the President from discussing his views on prayer.

“The only issue decided in this case is that the federal government may not endorse prayer in a statute,” Crabb said.

The Justice Department would not say whether it expects to appeal Crabb’s ruling.

“We are reviewing the court’s decision,” a Justice Department spokesman said.

Within hours of the ruling, the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee urged the Justice Department to “immediately” file an appeal.

“The decision undermines the values of religious freedom that America was founded upon,” Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex., said in a statement. “What’s next?  Declaring the federal holiday for Christmas unconstitutional?”

Crabb said the ruling would not have any effect until any appeals are exhausted.

She insisted her ruling was not a judgment on the value of prayer.

“No one can doubt the important role that prayer plays in the spiritual life of a believer,” Crabb said in her opinion. ”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. … However, 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 National Day of Prayer was first established by Congress in 1952, with a more specific date for the holiday set in 1988. It is now observed on the first Thursday in May.

Smith said he can “assure” Americans that “Congress will do everything in its power to protect the National Day of Prayer.”

On the holiday last year, President Obama issued a statement saying Americans have always “come together in moments of great challenge and uncertainty to humble themselves in prayer.”

“In 1775, as the Continental Congress began the task of forging a new Nation, colonists were asked to observe a day of quiet humiliation and prayer,” the statement said. “Almost a century later, as the flames of the Civil War burned from north to south, President Lincoln and the Congress once again asked the American people to pray as the fate of their Nation hung in the balance.”

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