“Euphoria” described the atmosphere around the offices of the national Freedom From Religion Foundation after winning a landmark federal district court ruling declaring the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional.
It’s not every day that the president of the United States gets enjoined — but it happened on April 15, 2010.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb issued an impressively reasoned 66-page ruling in the case of the Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Obama saying that the federal law designating a National Day of Prayer and requiring a National Day of Prayer proclamation by the president violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment.
Judge Crabb wrote: “The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy.”
Savoring its victory, the Foundation seized the opportunity afforded by the newsmaking ruling to educate in the court of public opinion. National wire stories and an April 17 New York Times feature, along with lots of national and regional radio and TV interviews, have profiled the Foundation, and hundreds of new members have joined.
The Foundation has placed an online petition to record support for the ruling, has designed new bus signs promoting the secular roots of our nation (see artwork this page, running in buses in Madison, Wis.), and ran a full-page ad in The New York Times the first week in May to oppose the National Day of Prayer (May 6 this year). Signers included member donors, and notables such as Ron Reagan and Ursula K. Le Guin. The Foundation also posted three red-white-and-blue billboards saying “God & Government a Dangerous Mix” in Colorado Springs, Colo., hometown to the National Day of Prayer Task Force, the evangelical group behind the law and proclamations. (See Page 24 for billboard graphic.)
The Foundation’s small office went into gear, writing all governors and more than 1,000 mayors across the land, asking them to refrain from issuing a National Day of Prayer proclamation, and from participating, in their official capacity, in prayer and religious events.
“It is such a profound violation of conscience for Congress to direct our president to tell all citizens to pray, to tell them when to pray, and that they in fact must set aside an entire day for prayer once a year. Every president since 1952 has even told ‘all Americans’ what to pray about, which shows a lot of temerity,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president.
“We’re absolutely gratified and delighted that Judge Crabb in her solid decision rejected revisionist history and decided this case on the merits.”
“In America we’re free to disagree about religion,” added Dan Barker, Foundation co-president, “but we’re not free to ask our government to settle the argument.”
”It bears emphasizing,” the district decision reads, “that a conclusion that the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from endorsing a religious exercise is not a judgment on the value of prayer or the millions of Americans who believe in its power. No one can doubt the important role that prayer plays in the spiritual life of a believer. . . .
“However, recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic.”
Crabb enjoined Obama from enforcing the National Day of Prayer law, but stayed the injunction until the appeals process is completed. The Obama administration “tweeted” reassurance on the day the ruling was handed down that it would issue a 2010 National Day of Prayer proclamation, and took less than a week to file notice that it would appeal. The case will go before the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Obama is a faith accompli,” quipped Richard L. Bolton, counsel for the case.
“We expected better of someone who has taught constitutional law,” Gaylor said.
Barker expressed disappointment that Obama made a pilgrimage to Rev. Billy Graham’s home on April 25, apparently to reassure him that the National Day of Prayer will go on, and, according to press, to “have a private prayer” with Graham. Graham’s son, Rev. Franklin Graham, had earlier that week been disinvited by the Pentagon from addressing its “Pentagon prayer service” during the National Day of Prayer on May 6, due to “inappropriate” comments about Islam.
The Foundation filed its groundbreaking suit in October 2008, originally suing President George W. Bush and his press secretary. The Foundation sued as an organization on behalf of its 14,500 members with individual plaintiffs Anne Nicol Gaylor, Phyllis Rose, Annie Laurie Gaylor, Dan Barker, Paul Gaylor, and Jill Dean, who are all Foundation officers or board members. Defendants are now President Barack Obama and Robert Gibbs, his press secretary.
The Foundation argued in its case that its membership is uniquely injured by a law ordering the highest executive to exhort citizens to pray, “because our members don’t pray or believe in a god which answers prayer, and this makes us political outsiders,” Barker said.
Every president since 1952 has issued proclamations urging “all Americans” to observe a National Day of Prayer, “to turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”
The law was proposed by Rev. Billy Graham, warning that our nation has “dropped our pilot, the Lord Jesus Christ.” On the steps of the Capitol, Graham inveighed: “What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be to see the leaders of our country today kneeling before almighty God in prayer.” His proposal was immediately championed and enacted.
Sen. Absalom Robertson of Virginia — Rev. Pat Robertson’s father — introduced the bill in the Senate, stating that it was a measure against “the corrosive forces of communism which seek simultaneously to destroy our democratic way of life and the faith in an Almighty God on which it is based.”
A Senate report cited as justification for the law a bogus myth: “When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention encountered difficulties in writing and formation of a Constitution for this Nation, prayer was suggested and became an established practice at succeeding sessions.”
The Foundation took pains to correct this revisionist lie, and Judge Crabb’s ruling documents that there was no such prayer.
Since 1988, the National Day of Prayer has been held on the first Thursday in May. The Foundation submitted into evidence that Vonette Bright, cofounder of Campus Crusade for Christ and the National Prayer Committee, directly lobbied Congress for that change. Sponsors such as Strom Thurmond entered into the record their desire to help religious groups “maximize participation” in the National Day of Prayer.
Bright “believed that we should have a day in this country where we cover this nation in prayer and the leaders.” Singer Pat Boone, co-chair of the prayer committee, testified. Sen. Jesse Helms sermonized on behalf of the bill that “God in heaven will hear and forgive our sins and heal our land.”
As signed into law by President Reagan, the law orders:
“The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May 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.”
Bright was first chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, which began in 1989, and has since been run by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. Its offices are housed at Focus on the Family’s fortress in Colorado Springs. Dobson writes the annual National Day of Prayer proclamations, complete with religious theme and scripture verse, and submits them to the president. (In 2008, when the Foundation filed its lawsuit, President Bush had adopted the task force wording and themes, as had 30 of the 50 governors — of whom all issued a prayer proclamation in some version.) The task force holds 30,000 to 40,000 events around the National Day of Prayer, aiming to hold a gathering at each capitol and at many city halls. It limits coordinators, volunteers and speakers to those who share its evangelical beliefs that the bible is inerrant and “there is only one Savior and only one gospel.” The Foundation argued that the government and the task force were working “hand in glove” in a manner that showed governmental preference and endorsement for one particular religious conviction, and for religion over nonreligion.
Judge Crabb took pains to point out that “a conclusion that the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from endorsing a religious exercise is not a judgment on the value of prayer or the millions of Americans who believe in its power.” Believers can freely organize their own prayer functions, she noted.
She rejected the Obama administration’s argument that the National Day of Prayer is a longstanding tradition: “No tradition existed in 1789 of Congress requiring an annual National Day of Prayer on a particular date. It was not until 1952 that Congress established a legislatively mandated National Day of Prayer; it was not until 1988 that Congress made the National Day of Prayer a fixed, annual event.” She pointed out that presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Andrew Jackson did not believe presidents should issue prayer proclamations.
Major political divisions have been created by the NDP, such as complaints by a national Jewish group in 2008 that the event had been “hijacked by Christian conservatives,” Judge Crabb noted.
In her ruling, Judge Crabb said that the NDP “serves no purpose but to encourage a religious exercise, making it difficult for a reasonable observer to see the statute as anything other than a religious endorsement.”
Judge Crabb also ruled that the law “does not have a secular purpose or effect” and does not “survive scrutiny under Lemon and the endorsement test. . . . The statute does not use prayer to further a secular purpose; it endorses prayer for its own sake.”
Bolton said the ruling pointed out that government shouldn’t take sides on religious issues. “For those who think this decision means the sky is falling, it’s not. Judge Crabb is simply saying ‘Do these things privately if you want to, but do not expect the president to lend the credibility or prestige of the office to the effort.’ ”
Judge Crabb cited former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s “concise” framing of the issue in another case: “Government cannot endorse the religious practices and beliefs of some citizens without sending a clear message to nonadherents that they are outsiders or less than full members of the political community.”
Gaylor, who was deposed nearly all day by the Obama administration last December, called the victory particularly sweet, because this case has been the most time-consuming and difficult of the Foundation’s 50 lawsuits. “The 1952 law was predicated on bad history — such as the lie that our founders prayed at the Constitutional Convention — and defending our lawsuit involved time-consuming research to debunk the disinformation presented by the Obama administration.
“We are very proud,” she added, “that the Foundation has corrected the record legally. The religious right has warped public perception about the secular roots of our country, and this time, we haven’t let them get away with it.”
The Foundation wrote both the Pentagon and State Department in the last week of April urging Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton to cancel unlawful National Day of Prayer events sponsored by the cabinets for employees. “It is not enough to cancel Rev. Franklin Graham,” the Foundation wrote Gates. “The entire National Day of Prayer sponsorship is totally inappropriate.”
The religious-right backlash has begun (see Page 5). Religious-right groups are raising a ruckus. Religious-right groups, such as the Alliance Defense Fund, a theocratic legal group working closely with the task force, and which has a whopping $32.7 million annual budget, is shamelessly raising more funds to fight FFRF’s victory. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers has denounced the decision.
White House Comment Line:
Oppose Prayer Proclamations
If your elected officials issue a 2010 National Day of Prayer proclamation, phone, e-mail and/or write them to let them know how offended you are as a freethinker to be exhorted to pray by your government.
Don’t forget the power of the written (or virtual) word. As the case in the news, write letters to the editor, add your views at online comment sections to newspaper articles and blogs on the issue. Never let a theocratic comment go without rebuttal!
The 66-page ruling by Judge Barbara Crabb conveys the the history of the law, its unconstitutionality and its injury to nonbelievers.