FFRF & friends challenge Arizona Day of Prayer

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog, and four of its Arizona members, with the legal help of attorneys Richard W. Morris and Marc. J. Victor, filed a lawsuit in federal court yesterday seeking to enjoin Arizona Gov. Janice K. Brewer from declaring an “Arizona Day of Prayer” in conjunction with the National Day of Prayer.

The lawsuit also seeks a declaratory judgment declaring that Gov. Brewer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when she declared May 6, 2010, the “Arizona Day of Prayer.”

The lawsuit is the third legal challenge related to the National Day of Prayer by FFRF, which won a federal court ruling in FFRF v. Obama last year. 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.”

Pending the Administration’s appeal, Crabb stayed her order enjoining President Obama from proclaiming the day of prayer. A decision in the case by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected by summer. FFRF is meanwhile 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.”

In 1988, evangelical groups lobbied Congress to change the National Day of Prayer from a floating date to the first Thursday in May. The evangelical National Day of Prayer Task Force, run by Shirley Dobson, began organizing government officials, and in recent years has triumphantly announced that all governors in each state, including Arizona, are issuing National Day of Prayer proclamations. The task force also persuades many mayors, including Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, to coordinate a “Day of Prayer” with the national law.

“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 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.”

The legal complaint notes that Gov. Brewer not only exhorts constituents to pray, but that 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 set aside an entire day for prayer every year, much less to exhort constituents to 'turn to God in prayer,' " said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. "Seventeen percent of Arizona citizens are nonreligious, and reject the notion that we can suspend the natural laws of the universe through wishful thinking, or that there is even a god who answers such prayer." (American Religious Identification Survey 2008)

FFRF warmly thanks the 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.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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