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national day of prayer unconstitutional?

April 16, 2010

The recent decision by a federal judge in Wisconsin that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional was brought to my attention by friend of mine today, who happened to post a couple of status updates about it on Facebook. Apparently, many Christian groups are outraged and wrongly accusing Obama of cancelling the National Day of Prayer service, never mind the fact that Obama is actually the defendant in this case.

Nevertheless, I think this case does raise an important question about the place of religion in government, and I have to say that I agree with the judge on this one. On matters of church and state, I take a position similar to that of Thomas Jefferson — author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the U.S. — who held that the First Amendment builds a “wall of separation between church and state,” and said that “civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”

Of course, it can be argued that “recommending” a day of prayer doesn’t technically violate the letter of First Amendment, and many presidents have done so in our nation’s history, but I agree with the judge that the National Day of Prayer — a statute passed by Congress in 1952 and signed into law by President Truman — is “an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function.” In designating a day for the nation to “turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals,” I believe that it violates the spirit and intent of the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment and, as such, it exceeds the power given to both the legislative and executive branches of government.

Not only that, but the bill itself was a blatant attack on atheists and political free speech — which is also protected by the First Amendment by the way — as evidenced by Sen. Absalom Robertson’s (Pat Robertson’s father) comment when introducing the bill in the Senate in 1952 as 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.”

The President can still issue a proclamation calling for a national day of prayer without it violating the Constitution. The judge herself made it clear that the plaintiffs had “standing to challenge section 119, but not to challenge presidential prayer proclamations generally.” This is supported in part by the Supreme Court’s decision in 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers, where the Supreme Court ruled that the practice of opening legislative sessions with a prayer lead by a government funded chaplain was constitutional. But a federal statute (i.e., an act of Congress) mandating the president establish a national day of prayer almost certainly crosses the line.

While I strongly support religious freedom, I also support freedom from religion when it comes to the role of the state in public affairs. To be honest, I fail to see how the federal statute that establishes the National Day of Prayer has managed to remain standing for this long.

Sources: Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (1802), Jefferson’s letter to Rev. Samuel Miller (1808) and Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Obama.

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