[Guest post by DRJ]
Wisconsin U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb has ruled unconstitutional the National Day of Prayer that was first established by Congress in 1952:
“In a 66-page opinion issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb said the holiday violates the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment, which creates a separation of church and state.
“I understand that many may disagree with that conclusion and some may even view it as a criticism of prayer or those who pray,” Crabb said in her opinion. “That is unfortunate. A determination that the government may not endorse a religious message is not a determination that the message itself is harmful, unimportant or undeserving of dissemination.”
The opinion comes in a case filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group of self-described “atheists” and “agnostics.”
Here is the opinion and this is the section I think best explains the Court’s reasoning:
“However, 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.”
The Court also pointed to the “divisive” impact and exclusionary effect of the National Day of Prayer as reflected in complaints listed at pp. 57-60 of the opinion. The Court then concluded with another example and a list of religious matters that aren’t prohibited:
“The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy.
It is important to clarify what this decision does not prohibit. Of course, “[n]o law prevents a [citizen] who is so inclined from praying” at any time. Wallace, 472 U.S. at 83-84 (O’Connor, J., concurring in the judgment). And religious groups remain free to “organize a privately sponsored [prayer event] if they desire the company of likeminded” citizens. Lee, 505 U.S. at 629 (Souter, J., concurring). The President too remains free to discuss his own views on prayer. Van Orden, 545 U.S. at 723 (Stevens, J., dissenting). The only issue decided in this case is that the federal government may not endorse prayer in a statute as it has in §119.”
Religion is too controversial for one judge or one opinion to decide in a way that convinces everyone, and that’s especially true if the judge has to explain what the opinion doesn’t mean as well as what it does.