Religion in Society

FFRF's Lawsuit to Stop National Day of Prayer Continues

| by FFRF

Although the Freedom From Religion Foundation membership doesn't believe in prayer, especially government prayer, its federal lawsuit against the National Day of Prayer now "has a prayer."

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of the western district of Wisconsin, in an opinion and order issued last week, denied motions to dismiss the Freedom From Religion Foundation's far-reaching legal challenge of National Day of Prayer proclamations. Denied were motions to dismiss filed by defendants Pres. Barack Obama, press secretary Robert Gibbs and Shirley Dobson, of the National Day of Prayer Taskforce.

"We are absolutely delighted that the courthouse door has not been slammed on the Foundation, and that we will be permitted to plead our significant case," said Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-presidents.

Also seeking dismissal of the Foundation challenge was Pat Robertson's legal arm, the American Center for Law & Justice, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of 31 members of Congress.*

The federal government claimed that the "National Day of Prayer has a secular purpose." The U.S. Attorney General's office "trotted out everything but the kitchen sink in attempting to rationalize this union between government and religion," Gaylor said.

"Most insulting was the government's patently false claim that 'the tradition of a National Day of Prayer dates to the founding of our country,' " added Barker.

Congress enacted a law in 1952, at the behest of Rev. Billy Graham, requiring the president to issue an annual prayer proclamation. Congress claimed in the legislative record that the founders prayed during the Constitutional Convention that adopted the secular Constitution.

"This is absolutely untrue, and the White House brief perpetuates this myth, and makes many other claims based on bad history," said Gaylor. "We're going to set the record straight."

Gaylor and Barker are plaintiffs in the case, along with Foundation president emerita Anne Nicol Gaylor, Foundation officer Phyllis Rose, and Board members Paul Gaylor and Jill Dean and the Freedom From Religion Foundation itself.

The plaintiffs represent the 13,700 national members of the Foundation, with members in every state, who object to the annual Presidential prayer proclamation beseeching "all Americans" to pray. The Foundation brief in opposition to dismissal pointed to the major increase in the number and percentage of secular Americans, who are clearly disenfranchised by the annual injunctions to pray issued by the president and governors.
In recent years, the National Day of Prayer has been taken over by the National Day of Prayer Taskforce, headed by Shirley Dobson, who is married to Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and whose taskforce is headquartered in Focus' Colorado Springs headquarters. The Foundation argues that the government and the NDP Taskforce, which it describes as "a messianic evangelical organization," work "hand in glove."

The Foundation's federal challenge also names Wis. Gov. Jim Doyle. Every governor in the country issues a National Day of Prayer proclamation, at the demand of the NDP Taskforce. Doyle did not seek dismissal of the lawsuit.

Under Reagan, the first Thursday in May became the "National Day of Prayer." Government/religion entanglements over the prayer proclamations greatly increased, partly due to the NDP Taskforce, which provides template proclamations with themes and scripture, and lobbies all governors and many local officials to also issue proclamations, plan events, prayer breakfasts and rallies. Recent presidential proclamations and gubernatorial proclamations, many of which adopt the NDP Taskforce themes, encourage citizens to participate in these prayerful events.

"Our challenge is raising consciousness and we believe it is responsible for the fact that the White House under Pres. Obama decided not to host a prayer event on May 7," said Barker.

"We're going to enjoy our right to discovery of documents of the National Day of Prayer Taskforce," he added. The lawsuit is brought on behalf of the Foundation by attorney Richard L. Bolton.