WASHINGTON — A
federal appeals court reversed an April
14, 2010 ruling that had invalidated the National Day of Prayer.
A three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago
struck down in a unanimous decision federal judge Barbara Crabb’s opinion that
a law establishing a day for the observance was unconstitutional. The appellate
ruling came almost one year to the day of Crabb’s controversial ruling.
Last year’s 66-page decision by the judge from Wisconsin’s
Western District had threatened a tradition as old as the American republic and
a specific observance in effect for nearly 60 years. Congress passed a resolution
in 1952 calling on the president to establish the National Day of Prayer as an
annual event, which President Truman initiated the same year and which
presidents since have recognized with proclamations. In 1988, Congress amended
the law to set the first Thursday of May for its observance.
Critics of last year’s ruling by Crabb applauded the Seventh Circuit’s
“I’m grateful that sanity still reigns at the appellate court level, at least
in the Seventh Circuit,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The idea that the National Day of
Prayer is unconstitutional is absurd on its face. The First Amendment
guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.
“Americans have been having national days of prayer long before the
Constitution was ratified and ever since the Constitution was ratified, and,
God willing, we will have them for many centuries into the future,” Land said.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, whose organization filed a
friend-of-the-court brief opposing last year’s opinion, commended the appeals
court “for rejecting even the idea of a federal lawsuit that demands this kind
of religious expression be scrubbed from the public square.”
“Today’s ruling sends a message to Judge Barbara Crabb and any other activist
judge who would rewrite the Constitution to advance a hostile treatment of
religion in public life,” Perkins said in the written statement. “This is a
perfect example of a harassing lawsuit that should have been dismissed at the
In writing for the panel, Frank Easterbrook, the Seventh Circuit’s chief judge,
required only nine pages to express the court’s opinion that the Freedom From
Religion Foundation did not have legal standing to sue the president of the United
States over the observance. The organization
— based in Madison, Wis.,
and consisting of atheists and agnostics — had filed suit in 2008, saying the
law violates the First Amendment’s clause barring government establishment of
Neither the law nor presidential proclamations implementing it injure those
bringing the suit, Easterbrook wrote. The law “does not require any private
person to do anything — or for that matter to take any action in response to
whatever the President proclaims,” he said.
Though the annual presidential proclamation regarding the National Day of
Prayer “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,” Easterbrook wrote. “It
is not just that there are no penalties for noncompliance; it is that
disdaining the President’s proclamation is not a ‘wrong.’”
No sensible person would assume a court should censor a president’s speech to
remove statements that might offend some in the audience, said Easterbrook, who
was nominated by President Reagan.
He cited President Lincoln’s mention of God seven times and prayer three times
in his second inaugural address, which is engraved in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington,
D.C. “An argument that the prominence of
these words injures every citizen, and that the Judicial Branch could order
them to be blotted out, would be dismissed as preposterous,” he wrote.
After Crabb’s ruling last year, the National Day of Prayer Task Force said the
tradition of designating an official day of prayer began with the Continental
Congress in 1775. Afterward, President Washington issued a National Day of
Presidents have issued similar proclamations and “appeals to the Almighty” ever
since, according to the task force. Typically, all 50 governors, in addition to
the president, have issued National Day of Prayer proclamations.
Crabb was nominated by President Carter. The other two judges on the Seventh
Circuit who signed the opinion, Daniel Manion and Ann Claire Williams, were
nominated by Presidents Reagan and Clinton, respectively.
The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Obama.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington
bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Erin Roach, an assistant
editor of Baptist Press.)
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