Appeals Court Should Strike Down the National Day of Prayer

Congress Has No Authority To Tell Americans When And How They Should Pray, Watchdog Group Says

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has asked a federal appeals court to find the congressionally mandated National Day of Prayer unconstitutional.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Americans United urged the panel of judges to affirm a lower court decision that held the National Day of Prayer statute unconstitutional.

In April, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the federal law violates the constitutional separation of church and state. The Obama administration has appealed Crabb’s decision to the 7th Circuit.

“Congress needs to get out of the prayer business,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. “Prayer is an inherently religious practice, and our Constitution makes it clear that promoting it is not part of the government’s job.

“Americans are free to pray whenever they want,” Lynn continued. “It's obvious this ‘holiday’ is not really about the freedom to worship, but rather another opportunity for certain religious groups to use government to push their narrow viewpoint on the rest of us.

“It’s time to end this misguided tradition,” Lynn added. “The district court got this right, and I’m hopeful the appeals court will, too.”

Congress created the National Day of Prayer in 1952. In 1988, after pressure from the Religious Right, it was codified as the first Thursday in May. The law directs the president to proclaim on that day that Americans “May turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”

AU’s brief argues that the NDP statute is a “plain endorsement of religion over nonreligion and of certain types of religious beliefs and practices over others.”

The brief also asserts that the statute has no secular purpose and “by its very terms it is not a commemoration or accommodation of our religious heritage but an active encouragement to engage in religious practice.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, the Americans Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin and the Interfaith Alliance Foundation joined Americans United in filing the brief in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Obama.

The brief was drafted by Evan M. Tager and Carl J. Summers of the law firm Mayer Brown with assistance from AU’s Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and two attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, Daniel Mach and Heather L. Weaver.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.