Colorado high court slams door on nonreligious in prayer suit

FFRF strongly criticized the Nov. 24 decision by the Colorado State Supreme Court against FFRF and four of its Colorado members, who were told they had no standing to sue the governor over his annual proclamation urging citizens to set aside a day for prayer.

Chief Justice Nancy Rice delivered the court’s 5–2 ruling that said that the psychic harm suffered by FFRF members—Mike Smith, David Habecker, Timothy Bailey and Jeff Baysinger—isn’t “injury sufficient to establish idividual standing.” Despite the fact that taxpayer standing is broad under Colorado law, the justices also called the “incidental overhead costs” insufficient to establish taxpayer standing.

Dissenting was Justice William Hood III, joined by Justice Gregory Hobbs Jr., who warned “we turn a deaf ear to citizens” who have concerns about religious freedom. Hood wrote that the court is confusing “the issue of when an individual’s claim should be heard with when it should prevail.”

FFRF has more 650 Colorado members and chapters in Denver and Colorado Springs, and 21,500 nationally. Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted, “Under today’s precedent, if Gov. John Hickenlooper decided to proclaim a state religion, no state citizen would have the right to challenge him. That’s shocking.”

“Being formally told to pray every year by their governor is what the Colorado Constitution so obviously sought to protect citizens from,” added Co-President Dan Barker. “This decision guts the no-preference clause of the state constitution that says no preference shall be ‘given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship.’”

A state Court of Appeals panel ruled 3–0 in May 2010 in favor of FFRF’s challenge of Colorado Day of Prayer proclamations.

“A reasonable observer would conclude that these proclamations send the message that those who pray are favored members of Colorado’s political community, and that those who do not pray do not enjoy that favored status,” appeals Judge Steve Bernard wrote.

FFRF filed the suit in 2008 after then-Gov. Bob Ritter spoke at an exclusionary, private Colorado Day of Prayer celebration on the State Capitol steps in 2007.

FFRF won a historic U.S. district court ruling, FFRF v. Obama, in 2010 that declared the federal National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. The suit demonstrated the religious origins of the 1952 and 1988 acts of Congress, with Rev. Billy Graham and other evangelists pushing for the laws. The evangelical National Day of Prayer Task Force — based at Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs and chaired by Shirley Dobson — has essentially acted as an arm of the government since 1988.

In 2011, the conservative 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals threw out FFRF’s standing.

“We thank our all-important state plaintiffs. We’re indignant on their behalf that courthouse doors are being slammed shut against citizens whose freedom of conscience is being violated so blatantly by theocratic elected officials,” Barker added.

Richard L. Bolton served as litigation attorney. and noted that the high court ruled only that the plaintiffs lacked standing and not that the governor’s practice is constitutional.

Freedom From Religion Foundation