National Day of Prayer Challenge Proceeds

The case by the Freedom From Religion Foundation case rests  . . . over its historic federal challenge of the constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer Act and presidential proclamations.

The case was filed a year ago by the Foundation, with individual officers and Board members as plaintiffs.

The Foundation’s lawsuit not only challenges the National Day of Prayer law and yearly presidential proclamations, but alleges that the National Day of Prayer (NDP) Task Force is working hand-in-glove with the federal and state governments.

Defendants are President Barack Obama, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Shirley Dobson, chair of the NDPrayer Task Force.

In  November, FFRF’s attorney Rich Bolton deposed Shirley Dobson in the matter. Then the U.S. government and the Alliance Defense Fund, representing Dobson, in turn deposed and videotaped Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president (for five hours).

When the U.S. attorney repeatedly asked Gaylor questions comparing the prayer law with a federal act requiring a Columbus Day federal holiday and proclamation, in exasperation she finally replied: “The difference be-tween the two is that there really was a historic Columbus! There is no proof there is a god or that he answers prayers.”

The National Day of Prayer law passed in 1952 at the direct instigation of Rev. Billy Graham in the midst of his crusade in the nation’s capital. The resolution was described as a measure against the corrosive forces of communism which “seeks simultaneously to destroy our democratic way of life and the faith in an Almighty God on which it is placed.”

The Committee on the Judiciary issued a report on the bill encouraging the people of this country to unite in a day of prayer each year, “thus reaffirming in a dramatic manner that deep religious conviction which has prevailed throughout the history of the United States.”

The report claimed, “When the delegates to the Constitutional Conven-tion encountered difficulties in the writing and formation of a Consti-tution for this Nation, prayer was suggested and became an established practice at succeeding sessions.”

The Foundation’s legal filings document that this claim is untrue: The members of the Constitutional Con-vention never prayed when they adopted the entirely godless and secular U.S. Constitution. In fact, when Con-vention Secretary Benjamin Franklin once suggested a prayer, the convention adjourned for the day (out of embarrassment, presumably) and never held prayers at any time.

About a fifth of the presidential proclamations repeat the historic myth that there was prayer at the Consti-tutional Convention. Additional pro-clamations repeat other historic myths, such as that General Washington prayed at Valley Forge.

Public Law 324, a Joint Resolution, was approved on April 17, 1952: “That 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 in churches, in groups, and as individuals.”

FFRF has documented the similar evangelical genesis of the 1988 amendment turning a floating day into a fixed day. The first NDP Task Force Chair was Vonette Bright, cofounder with her husband, Dr. Bill Bright, of Campus Crusade for Christ. Bright led efforts to make the National Day of Prayer the first Thursday of every May.

The NDP Task Force is a project of the National Prayer Committee. Pat Boone, co-chair of the National Prayer Committee, testified: “I believe a definite date will allow millions of citizens within our nation who have explicit faith in a Prayer-hearing God to be informed about this significant day in our country.”

When President Ronald Reagan signed the law, he invited religious leaders, including Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and Shirley Dobson, who soon became the chair of the NDP Task Force,to attend the signing. She has attended 10 White House prayer services for the National Day of Prayer.

President George W. Bush publicly lauded the role of the Dobsons and the NDP Task Force, and promoted the role of prayer at exclusive annual NDP observances in the East Room.
Dobson testified that the annual theme and supporting scripture of the NDP Task Force proclamations comes from a Judeo-Christian background. Dobson said she determines the theme by going before the Lord every year in prayer, and asking him what is on his heart for our nation, and through prayer God usually gives her “the perfect theme” for that year.

The National Day of Prayer is a rallying point for the NDP Task Force to target more prayer for government, its leaders and the military, Dobson said in her deposition.
Dobson testified that the United States was founded on the Judeo-Christian system of values, was birthed in prayer, and was founded on the God of the bible.

The NDP Task Force ghost-writes and solicits proclamations from the President, which are then read by 40,000 Task Force coordinators at events around the country.
Dobson’s group also asks all governors to issue proclamations, who, in recent years, have complied. Many governors use the wording of the NDP Task Force proclamation.

If governors refuse to issue prayer proclamations, then the NDP Task Force sets up an appointment with a governor. The goal is for each governor to hold a prayer observance on the steps of the capitol building to give visibility to the National Day of Prayer.

Ms. Dobson testified that it feels nice when a governor uses a particular NDP Task Force theme because “it was given to me by the Lord.”
President Bush used the NDP Task Force proclamation theme in 2008, and in some previous years.

The NDP Task Force holds a prayer service in the Caucus Room of the Cannon Office Building on Capitol Hill on the National Day of Prayer every year. God TV now webcasts the event. Representatives of all three branches of government (characterized by Mrs. Dobson as “the Executive branch, judicial and military”) are invited.

The Foundation filings noted that the National Day of Prayer has been highly divisive, with concerns ex-pressed that it has been hijacked by Christian fundamentalists.
“The government cannot endorse, promote or prefer religion over nonreligion, and prayer is quintessentially a religious activity,” the Foundation as-serts.

The Foundation and its members are uniquely harmed by the proclamations, since as nonbelievers they are exhorted annually by their president not only to pray, but told what to pray about, in proclamations that invariably link piety with patriotism.

The plaintiffs consider this to be on the continuum to theocracy, which is what many people came to this country to avoid: Government telling citizens what to believe about religion, and where to pray, and when to pray and why to pray.

Read legal filings

ADF to IRS: Go to Hell

Religious conservatives reprised last year’s attack on the federal ban on political speech from the pulpit with the Alliance Defense Fund’s second Pulpit Freedom Sunday on Sept. 27.

ADF, a conservative Christian law firm based in Arizona, started its Pulpit Initiative in 2008 to challenge Internal Revenue Service rules that tie tax exemptions for churches and nonprofits to staying neutral in the political arena. In 2009, 83 pastors in took part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday compared to 31 last year, according to ADF.

The so-called Johnson Amend­ment, named after then Sen. Lyndon Johnson, has been in force since 1954. ADF’s Web site claims the IRS and “radical organizations” use the law “to create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear for any church that dares to speak Scriptural truth about candidates for office or issues.”

This year, in the wake of church involvement in the successful referendum to overturn same-sex marriage in Maine, gay-rights advocates are fighting back. Maine Marriage Equality said 80,000 people have joined its online effort to report churches which got involved in the political referendum to the IRS. The Catholic Diocese of Portland raised more than $500,000 and sent it to a political action committee called Stand For Marriage Maine.

“This is an all-too-obvious attempt to use the IRS to intimidate pastors and churches as a means of punishment and to get them to be quiet,” said Erik Stanley, ADF senior legal counsel. “We encourage the churches of Maine not to be intimidated and to contact us if they are contacted by the IRS.”

The Johnson Amendment has increasingly become a whipping boy for the Religious Right, but in a 2006 speech to the City Club of Cleveland in Ohio, then-IRS Commissioner Mark Everson defended it. Everson was appointed by President George W. Bush and also served in several positions in the Reagan administration.

“Freedom of speech and religious liberty are essential elements of our democracy,” Everson said.

“But the Supreme Court has in essence held that tax exemption is a privilege, not a right, stating, ‘Congress has not violated [an organization’s] First Amendment rights by declining to subsidize its First Amendment activities.’ . . . Congress enacted the law. The courts upheld it. Our job at the IRS is to educate the public and charities about the law and to enforce it in a fair and evenhanded manner.”

Everson noted that in the last six months of the 2004 election cycle, Section 527 groups involved in issue advocacy reported spending over $300 million in expenditures, double the $150 million spent in the comparable period in the 2000 cycle.

“Are we going to let these political activities spread to our charities and churches? Now is the time to act, before it is too late,” Everson said.

The IRS reviewed 132 charities and churches for alleged violations in the 2004 cycle. Of those, 22 were closed without contacting the taxpayer. “Nearly three-quarters of the 82 examinations completed to date have substantiated that the charities or churches engaged in prohibited political activity,” Everson said.

Freedom From Religion Foundation