The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.
- A joint resolution of Congress signed by President Harry Truman in 1952.
THE Freedom From Religion Foundation of Wisconsin knew it had a friend in U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb, who last month ruled that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.
The foundation of atheists and agnostics that filed a lawsuit in 2008 to block the observance named former President George W. Bush and his press secretary as defendants. Now the defendants are President Obama and his press secretary, Robert Gibbs.
The White House is expected to appeal. This year's event will proceed, setting Thursday, May 6, as a day of prayer for the nation. Ever since 1975, presidents have called for a day of national prayer. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan designated the first Thursday in May for the observance.
But the ruling by Judge Crabb - an appointee of former President Jimmy Carter and the first woman to serve on the federal bench in Wisconsin - is not the first evidence of the unholy alliance between the judge and the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
President Bush deserves credit for recognizing that, effective as they are, social services agencies need help to address myriad social woes. So he promoted government faith-based social-service efforts.
One such effort was a drug and alcohol addiction program in Wisconsin called Faith Works. Because it included Christian prayer meetings and Bible study, Judge Crabb struck down that program in 2002, saying the state could not give it government grants. The ruling was the outcome of a Freedom From Religion Foundation lawsuit.
Judge Crabb's ruling unraveled decades of tradition and ignored the fact that the National Day of Prayer statute does not compel anyone to pray. Rather, it compels the president to proclaim a day on which Americans may turn to prayer. True, the statute suggests gathering at churches. However, if praying - or not - elsewhere better suits you, fine.
Still, Judge Crabb maintained that the day violates church-state separation because it is a call for religious action.
"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," she stated in her ruling.
Judge Crabb also wrote that government involvement in prayer could be constitutional, providing the conduct serves a "significant secular purpose" but does not lead to a call to religious action. The National Day of Prayer, she maintains, crosses that line.
"It goes beyond mere 'acknowledgement' of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context," she said. "In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience."
The operative phrase she used is that the day's "sole purpose is to encourage" people to pray. The statute compels no one to do anything.
Despite all the dissension in Washington lately, politicians have united on this issue. They agree that Judge Crabb's ruling is replete with inanity and absurdity.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) said the judge's decision "seems on its face patently absurd." Rep. Mike McIntyre (D., N.C.) emphasizes that the law does "not require people to do anything."
Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan (R., Urbana) gave this perspective: "My concern is if we don't prevail on the values debate, we may not have to the toughness, the tenacity, what it takes to prevail on the other big challenges: the economic and financial concerns we face, the terrorist threat we face. It is that important. It's really that fundamental."
Even lawmakers who have been at each other's throats agree that faith and prayer should remain vital parts of U.S. history and culture. One wayward judge should not be allowed to eradicate that.
Terrorism remains a threat. The economy is awful, banking needs reform, and it's unfortunate that too many Americans dislike health-care reform.
U.S. families are desperate: Divorce, unemployment, and home foreclosure rates are high. Drugs, domestic and child abuse, shootings, and other crime plague our neighborhoods.
And that's not even the tip of the iceberg. So where do we need to be before we collectively turn our faces upward for help from on high for just one day?
Rose Russsell is a Blade associate editor.