Lawsuit against National Day of Prayer dismissed

Posted Apr 19, 2011 by Kim I. Hartman
A US Court of Appeals has dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation that challenged the annual Presidential proclamation of a National Day of Prayer saying "a feeling of alienation cannot suffice as injury."
U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Supreme Court
File photo
The lawsuit was filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a Wisconsin based group of atheists and agnostics who claim the National Day of Prayer, proclaimed by the President each year since it was established by Congress in 1952, violates the separation of church and state.
Section 119 of the U.S. Code, at the center of the debate, states: "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."
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled last year the National Day of Prayer "amounts to a call for religious action," reported USA Today. Crabb ruled the government could not use its authority to try to influence when and whether individuals pray, writing: "In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience."
Members of Congress condemned the ruling saying "prayer has long been part of the country's history" and called on the Justice Department to appeal the ruling and "urged the Obama administration to use all means at its disposal to challenge the decision."
President Barack Obama, in his official proclamation of 2010, said: "Throughout our history, whether in times of great joy and thanksgiving, or in times of great challenge and uncertainty, Americans have turned to prayer. In prayer, we have expressed gratitude and humility, sought guidance and forgiveness, and received inspiration and assistance, both in good times and in bad."
Obama continued by declaring May 6, 2010, as a National Day of Prayer and said, "I call upon the citizens of our Nation to pray, or otherwise give thanks, in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and I invite all people of faith to join me in asking for God's continued guidance, grace, and protection as we meet the challenges before us."
This statement was referenced multiple times by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in last weeks ruling [pdf].
Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook said: "Since the founding of the Republic, Congress has requested each President to ask the citizens to pray and every President except Thomas Jefferson has complied."
Easterbrook wrote that "Section 119 imposes duties on the President alone. It does not require and private person to do anything- or for that matter to take any action in response to whatever the President proclaims. If anyone suffers injury, that person is the President, who is not complaining"
Easterbrook said when considering the merits of the case "Standing is the first question because, unless the case presents a justiciable controversy, the judiciary must not address the merits."
"No one has standing to object to a statute that imposes duties on strangers," said Easterbrook. "Unlike §119, the President’s proclamations are addressed to plaintiffs, in common with all citizens. Although this proclamation speaks to all citizens, no one is obliged to pray, any more than a person would be obliged to hand over his money if the President asked all citizens to support the Red Cross and other charities. It is not just that there are no penalties for noncompliance; it is that disdaining the President’s proclamation is not a “wrong.” The President has made a request; he has not issued a command. No one is injured by a request that can be declined.
"The Plantiff's contend that they were injured because they feel excluded, or made unwelcome, when the President asks them to engage in a religious observance that is contrary to their own principles. It is difficult to see how any reader of the 2010 proclamation would feel excluded or unwelcome," wrote Easterbrook. "But let us suppose the plaintiffs nonetheless feel slighted. Hurt feelings differ from legal injury."
With that said Easterbrook and fellow Circuit Judges Dainiel A. Manion and Ann Claire Williams vacated the lower court ruling with instructions to dismiss for want of justiciable controversy.
"We applaud the Seventh Circuit's dismissal of this desperate attempt to erase our country's rich history of calling for prayer," said Kelly Shackelford, president/CEO for Liberty Institute. "Sadly, some are determined to censor religious expression in the public arena. As long as Liberty Institute exists and the Constitution is in place, we will do everything in our power to ensure that never happens."
"The 7th Circuit's decision in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Obama once again affirms what the vast majority of Americans know intuitively: that we should not and indeed cannot separate our nation's history from the influence of religion on its founders," said Brad Miller, director of family policy councils for Citizenlink. "Even Americans with a decidedly agnostic view of religion cannot refute the important role religious tradition has played throughout the history of this great nation. The President's proclamation is simply a continuation of a long and deep tradition of urging and acknowledging prayer as a fundamental part of a healthy society. We applaud this decision and the great work of our allies at the Liberty Institute for their work on behalf of religious freedom."
This year, National Day of Prayer is set for May 5.