National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional, declares a Wisconsin federal judge

Of course, it will be appealed. But this is still big news on the separation of church and state front. This today in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

A Wisconsin federal judge on Thursday found the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional, saying it violates the First Amendment prohibition against laws respecting an establishment of religion.

And the judge’s rationale:

She said the federal statute ordering the president to make the annual proclamation serves no secular purpose, casts nonbelievers as outsiders and goes beyond the mere acknowledgment of religion to encouraging a practice best left to individual conscience.

Crabb said her ruling was not an attack on prayer but an effort to ensure religious liberty.

“The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy,” she said in the decision.

I love the equivalence of prayer and blasphemy that she offered: the government shouldn’t be in the business of promoting or discouraging either. What a sensible, fair, and sane judge. Somebody in the Obama administration needs to put her on the short list for the Supreme Court.

In terms of the decision being upheld by higher courts, this really ought to be a no-brainer: obviously, the federal government shouldn’t be calling the nation to prayer as if it were in a collective covenant with God, and the history of the proclamation resides in sectarian Protestant fundamentalist agitation. Here’s what the Journal Sentinel offers as background:

The decision traces the history of the day to a 1952 rally in Washington by the Rev. Billy Graham, in which he called for a national day of prayer and envisioned a “great spiritual awakening” for the capital with “thousands coming to Jesus Christ.” . . . In 1988, at the urging of Campus Crusade for Christ and the National Day of Prayer committee, Congress enacted legislation requiring the president to issue an annual proclamation declaring the first Thursday in May as National Prayer Day.

One of the things considered by the courts is the history of how something came into existence (as in the Dover trial over teaching “intelligent design” in the schools: the court found the purpose of those promoting it was religious). In this case, the motive force for the National Prayer Day has no secular purpose, and was not meant to. It is a promotion of religion.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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