Last night, Americans United celebrated a decision by a U.S. district court judge who ruled the congressionally mandated National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, AU’s executive director, hailed the decision as a “tremendous victory for religious liberty. Congress has no business telling Americans when or how to pray.”
But several Religious Right leaders are predictably dismayed over the ruling.
“It’s important to remember this about the National Day of Payer: It’s America’s heritage, and this day belongs to Americans,” said Alliance Defense Fund Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster.
Shirley Dobson, chairman of the (privately sponsored) National Day of Prayer Task Force and wife of Focus on the Family Founder James Dobson, elaborated on those thoughts.
“Since the days of our Founding Fathers, the government has protected and encouraged public prayer and other expressions of dependence on the Almighty,” Dobson said. “This is a concerted effort by a small but determined number of people who have tried to prohibit all references to the Creator in the public square, whether it be the Ten Commandments, the Pledge of Allegiance, or the simple act of corporate prayer – this is unconscionable for a free society.”
Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of Pat Robertson’s American Center for Law and Justice, which represented 31 members of Congress in a friend-of-the-court brief defending the National Day of Prayer, also chimed in.
“It is unfortunate that this court failed to understand that a day set aside for prayer for the country represents a time-honored tradition that embraces the First Amendment, not violates it,” he said.
Oster, Dobson, Sekulow and their aligned groups are wrong. This decision is not attacking America’s heritage at all – in fact, it is upholding what our Founding Fathers intended.
The National Day of Prayer was created by Congress less than 60 years ago. And if we look to the Founding Fathers’ examples, we see how James Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution, thought presidential prayer proclamations nourished the erroneous idea of a national religion and how Thomas Jefferson believed that the decision to pray should be left up to the individual.
It’s this vision that U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin brought us back to yesterday. She said that by enacting the National Day of Prayer statute, “the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience.”
Crabb also explained that this does not in any way prohibit any individual, including the president, from praying.
“No one can doubt the important role that prayer plays in the spiritual life of a believer,” she wrote. “In the best of times, people may pray as a way of expressing joy and thanks; during times of grief, many find that prayer provides comfort. Others may pray to give praise, seek forgiveness, ask for guidance or find the truth.
“However,” she continued, “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. In fact, it is because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have such a powerful effect on a community that the government may not use its authority to try to influence an individual’s decision whether and when to pray.”
How could anyone who believes in religious liberty disagree?