Arizona Day of Prayer challenged

If the Freedom From Religion Foundation has its way, Arizona Gov. Janice K. Brewer will be ordered by a court to refrain from issuing her usual Arizona Day of Prayer on the first Thursday of May. FFRF and four of its Arizona members filed a lawsuit in federal court March 15 seeking to enjoin Brewer from issuing a prayerful pro-clamation in conjunction with the National Day of Prayer.

FFRF asks the court to find Gov. Brewer in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for declaring last year’s “Arizona Day of Prayer” on May 6. Not only did Brewer call for an Arizona Day of Prayer in 2009 and 2010, but she even called for a Day of Prayer for the budget on Jan. 17, 2010. Jokes Richard Morris, one of two attorneys filing the case on FFRF’s behalf: “And, as we know, nothing fails like prayer.”

The lawsuit is FFRF’s third legal challenge related to the National Day of Prayer.

 FFRF won its landmark federal court ruling in FFRF v. Obama last year in a case argued by attorney Richard L. Bolton. U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of Wisconsin declared the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional:

“In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience. When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual’s decision about whether and how to worship.”

A ruling in the appeal by Obama is expected this spring by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. FFRF is also challenging a gubernatorial proclamation of the National Day of Prayer in state court in Colorado.

At the behest of Rev. Billy Graham, Congress passed Public law 82-324 in 1952:

“The President shall set aside and proclaim a suitable day each year, other than a Sunday, as a National Day of Prayer, on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”

Evangelical groups lobbied Congress in 1988 to change the National Day of Prayer from a floating date to the first Thursday in May to make it easier to organize. The evangelical National Day of Prayer Task Force targets all governors to issue National Day of Prayer proclamations and lobbies mayors to coordinate a “Day of Prayer” with the national law, creating a cascade of state/church entanglements.

“Prayer proclamations by government officials, including proclamations by Governor Brewer, convey to nonreligious Arizona citizens the message that the Arizona state government expects them to believe in a god,” the FFRF legal complaint charges.

The governor’s official promotion of prayer creates “a culture of government-sanctioned religiosity” and “a hostile environment for nonbelievers, who are made to feel as if they are second class citizens.”

Gov. Brewer not only exhorts constituents to pray, but her proclamations “further call forth and encourage other public officials to engage in public ceremonies endorsing religion,” such as the prayer proclamation by the Phoenix mayor last year. The mayor’s proclamation referenced “the biblical theme pre-selected by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a Christian evangelical group, thus removing all doubt as to the Christian preference of the official proclamation.”

The complaint calls the gubernatorial prayer practices a violation of Article II, Section 12 of the Arizona Constitution. The complaint cites U.S. secular history, such as the Treaty of Tripoli, which specifically states that the United States is not founded on the Christian religion. It quotes Thomas Jefferson’s famed letter to the Baptists of Danbury contemplating “with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

“Neither Congress, the President, nor Gov. Jan Brewer has any constitutional authority to dictate to citizens that they should pray, much less to set aside an entire day for prayer every year, or to ‘turn to God in prayer,’ ”  says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president.

FFRF Co-President Dan Barker notes that FFRF has more than 400 members in Arizona, and that 17% of Arizona citizens are nonreligious. “These Arizonians reject the notion that the natural laws of the universe may be suspended by wishful thinking, and are offended at their governor telling them to believe in a god who answers such prayer.

 “On behalf of FFRF, we warmly thank the all-important local plaintiffs — Mike Wasin, John S. Compere, Michael Renzuilli and Justin Grant — who make possible the Arizona challenge, and attorneys Richard W. Morris and Marc J. Victor, who are both FFRF members,” Barker added.

Catch an interview with attorney Richard Morris about the lawsuit on Freethought Radio, March 19, 2011:

Freedom From Religion Foundation