Americans United for Separation of Church and State today praised a federal district court for striking down the congressionally mandated National Day of Prayer.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the federal law violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
Crabb held that the sole purpose of the federal law “is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience.”
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said, “This decision is a tremendous victory for religious liberty. Congress has no business telling Americans when or how to pray.
“The Constitution forbids the government to meddle in religious matters,” Lynn continued. “Decisions about worship should be made by individuals without direction from elected officials. That’s what freedom is all about.”
Lynn said the National Day of Prayer is of recent vintage. It was created by Congress in 1952. The scheduling of the event used to change, but it was codified by Congress in 1988 (after pressure from the Religious Right) as the first Thursday in May.
Lynn noted that America’s Founders did not intend for government to intrude in Americans’ individual religious choices.
Thomas Jefferson, for example, refused to issue prayer proclamations, observing, “Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.”
James Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution, issued a few prayer proclamations at the behest of Congress during the War of 1812. But he later wrote that he regretted the move.
Governmental religious proclamations, Madison observed, “seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.” He warned that there would always be a tendency “to narrow the recommendation to the standard of the predominant sect.”