National Day of Prayer ruled ‘unconstitutional’

The National Day of Prayer is on the ropes.

Congress first authorized the “day” in 1952 (with President Truman’s blessing), calling on Americans to share a day focused on prayer. Earlier presidents, including Lincoln, had set less formal days of prayer.

The NDP has been held on the first Thursday in May since 1988.

Some folks never liked the idea, saying that the government should not be involved in endorsing prayer — even in such a simple way.

In recent years, there have been complaints that the planning and running of the NDP had been hijacked by conservative evangelicals, namely Focus on the Family.

Well, yesterday, a federal judge in Wisconsin declared the NDP to be unconstitutional.

US District Judge Barbara Crabb said that the NDP violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on government endorsement of religion.

She wrote: “Recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean 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.”

Obama toned things down last year, marking the NDP but not holding a public ceremony.

So what happens now?

The ruling was made on a lawsuit brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based group. That’s Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Day of PrayerAccording to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Crabb postponed enforcement of the decision until all appeals are done. So the 2010 NDP will go off as planned on May 6.

Obama plans to make his 2010 proclamation.

“We have reviewed the court’s decision and it does not prevent the president from issuing a proclamation,” White House spokesman Matthew Lehrich said in an e-mail to the Journal Sentinel.

The National Day of Prayer Task Force, led by Focus on the Family’s Shirley Dobson, will certainly go ahead with national observances on May 6 — with or without the government’s involvement.

I haven’t seen a statement from the task force yet.

And I’m surprised that I haven’t gotten a slew of angry press releases from Christian groups. But there’s still time.

Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian public interest law firm, told the JS that the ruling would be overturned.

“In no way do we think this is the mainstream of judicial thinking in the United States,” he said.

A Nation of Prayer (and politics)

Today is the 58th annual National Day of Prayer, which, like so many things, has become quite politicized in recent years.

The National Day of Prayer became federal law in 1952, after heavy lobbying by Billy Graham and others. President Truman signed the bill.

The idea, at first, was pretty general: to inspire Americans to spend one day — the same day — in prayer and reflection, whether at church or at home.

In recent years, the day has become closely associated with the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a conservative evangelical group run by Shirley Dobson, the wife of Focus on the Family founder Jim Dobson. Many liberal and moderate Christians, among others, have complained that the day was hijacked by those with a very specific point of view.

President Bush invited religious leaders to the White House every year for a special prayer service.

President Obama chose not to, a move that is seen by some as anti-Day of Prayer. Obama did sign a proclamation this morning declaring a National Day of Prayer, but did not make a big deal of it.

Shortly after noon today, many Americans will gather in small groups outside their city and town halls to pray together.

So there you go.