The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog, filed a federal lawsuit on Oct. 3 in Madison, Wis., broadly challenging the federal law designating a National Day of Prayer and requiring a National Day of Prayer Proclamation by the President.
In addition to suing Pres. George W. Bush, the lawsuit names his press secretary, Dana Perino (who disseminated the 2008 proclamation), and Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle–one of 50 governors to also issue prayer proclamations. The lawsuit, in an unusual twist, further names as defendant Shirley Dobson, chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force. The suit alleges that this task force, associated with Focus on the Family and run by Dobson, is “working hand-in-glove” with the government in organizing the National Day of Prayer.
The Foundation is seeking a declaration that Public Law 100-307, which sets the first Thursday in May as “National Day of Prayer,” violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The National Day of Prayer was first designated as a floating holiday in 1952. Ronald Reagan designated it as the first Thursday in May in 1988.
“This is another one of those nasty McCarthy-era violations which have caused so much damage to legal precedent, and which have distorted public perception over what is supposed to be our secular government,” commented Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president.
“Complaints over government entanglements with the Day of Prayer are among the most common the Foundation receives,” added Foundation co-president Dan Barker.
Not only governors but often mayors, county executives and even other public officials are either pressured to participate, or take advantage of this violation to promote their personal religious agendas. Government prayer breakfasts are often held to correspond with the National Day of Prayer.
“There is no end to the mischief this public law creates for those of us working to keep church and state separate. Citizens have a right to demand that public officials respect their freedom of conscience–including the right to be free from official prayer proclamations,” added Gaylor.
“Mandated Prayer proclamations by the President exhorting each citizen to pray constitutes an unabashed endorsement of religion,” contends the Foundation legal complaint, filed on behalf of the Foundation by attorney Richard L. Bolton of Boardman Law Firm, Madison, Wis.
The Foundation charges that the government “aligns and partners” with the NDP Task Force as the official organizer of the National Day of Prayer. The NDP Task Force identifies itself as “The National Day of Prayer ‘Official Website.’”
The task force has close ties to Focus on the Family. Its chairperson, Shirley Dobson, is married to Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, and the task force is located in the Focus on the Family headquarters.
The task force proposes the wording of the annual proclamations and chooses a yearly theme and a bible quote. In 2008, Psalm 28:7, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in Him and I am helped” was selected by the NDP as its official biblical reference, and was duly recited in Bush’s proclamation and in at least 15 gubernatorial NDP proclamations. Other governors picked up variations of the task force resolution template and the annual theme.
The Foundation Complaint asserts that the Establishment Clause “prohibits government officials and persons acting in joint and concerted action with government officials from taking actions that endorse religion, including specific religions in preference to others, as well as preferring religion over non-religion.”
“Exhortations to pray in official Presidential proclamations do not constitute ceremonial deism solemnizing some other occasion,” the Foundation notes, but “constitute an end in itself intended to promote and endorse religion.”
The Complaint notes that the prayer proclamations “create a bond between church and state,” causing such violations as an official prayer breakfast organized on May 1, 2008, by Sheriff Dean Roland, Burnett Co., Wis. The Sheriff organizes an annual prayer breakfast and sends out invitations on Sheriff’s Department letterhead. His speaker this year was Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice (Elect) Michael Gableman, who, among other things, said that official acknowledgment of reliance on “Divine Providence” is necessary for our nation’s success and well-being.
Also named is Wis. Gov. Jim Doyle, who issued a proclamation this year extolling prayer and exhorting Wisconsin citizens to prayer, utilizing National Day of Prayer Task Force themes, giving the appearance of state endorsement of religion. The suit alleges that the NDP Task Force pressures governors from all 50 states to issue official proclamations, acting “in concert” in a way that aligns them with “the Judeo-Christian principles on which the Task Force is based.”
“The concerted actions by these Governors to include the NDP Task Force theme and biblical reference are not accidental or coincidental; they are the result of joint action with the NDP Task Force,” observed the Foundation. The proclamations “convey to nonreligious Americans that they are expected to believe in God,” and send a message that “religion is preferred over non-religion.”
“Designations of an official Day of Prayer by Presidential and Gubernatorial proclamations, encouraging celebration of prayer, create a hostile environment for nonbelievers. who are made to feel as if they are political outsiders,” continues the Complaint.
“Official Prayer Proclamations by the President and the Governors of the United States adversely affect the ability of FFRF to carry out its organizational mission,” the lawsuit further notes. The complaint labels prayer “the quintessential religious act,” which should not be called for officially by government figures.
Plaintiffs are the Foundation and five of its Wisconsin Lifetime members, who are also volunteers or officers: Anne Nicol Gaylor, President Emerita; Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, Co-Presidents; Paul Gaylor and Jill Dean, volunteers and members of the Board of Directors, and Phyllis Rose, volunteer and Foundation officer.
The lawsuit was filed in Judge Barbara Crabb’s District Court in the Western District of Wisconsin, Case 08-CV-588.
You may read the entire Complaint and view all 50 of the 2008 Gubernatorial Prayer Proclamations at: