Colorado Supreme Court slams courthouse door shut against nonreligious citizens

The Freedom From Religion Foundation criticized today’s decision by the Colorado State Supreme Court saying that FFRF and four of its Colorado state members have no right to sue the governor over his annual proclamation urging citizens to set aside an annual day for prayer.

Chief Justice Nancy E. Rice delivered the state high court’s 5-2 ruling, finding that the psychic harm suffered by FFRF members — Mike Smith, David Habecker, Timothy G. Bailey and Jeff Baysinger — isn’t “injury sufficient to establish individual 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 W. Hood, III, joined by Justice Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr., warning “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, a prominent state/church watchdog and the largest membership association of atheists and agnostics, has more than 650 Colorado members among its 21,500 national membership.

Noted FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor: “Under today’s precedent, if Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper decided to proclaim a state religion, no state citizen would have the right to challenge him!”

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

FFRF had won a strong victory in state appeals court in May 2010, when the Colorado Court of Appeals unanimously ruled 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,” Judge Steve Bernard wrote. The proclamations violated the Preference Clause of the Religious Freedom section of Colorado’s Constitution, being predominantly religious, lacking a secular contexts and effectively endorsing religion as preferred over nonreligion.

FFRF started the lawsuit in 2008, after then-Gov. Bob Ritter spoke at a religiously exclusionary, private Colorado Day of Prayer celebration on the steps of the State Capitol in 2007.

FFRF won a historic federal district court rulingFFRF v. Obama, in 2010, declaring the federal National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. FFRF 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 — 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 and are 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,” Gaylor added.

Richard L. Bolton served as litigation attorney.


Poster for next year’s National Day of Prayer blending government and religion.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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