Sunday, April 18, 2010

Obama Flouts Court Decision

          A federal district court judge ruled last week in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Obama that the statute creating the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. The statute passed in 1952 in response to a campaign by evangelist Billy Graham to return the nation to faith in Almighty God. Although the legislators called on Catholics, Jews, and Protestants to participate in the prayers, Graham's clear interest was in returning the nation to Jesus Christ. The statute is unconstitutional, the court concluded, 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. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience
          The judge was right; under the Establishment Clause, the government should not promote, encourage or endorse religion or religious practice. Prayer is the quintessential religious practice. Federal legislation promoting a day of prayer sends a message to non-believers that they are outsiders, less than full members of the political community, while the religious insiders are favored. The government is not supposed to favor religion over irreligion but remain neutral. 
          Anticipating the inevitable political fallout from her legal decision, Judge Barbara Crabb's opinion also observed that individuals remain free to pray. Indeed, it is in order to promote individual religion that the Establishment Clause protects citizens against the government's preferring or encouraging religion. 
          The White House immediately announced that the president would ignore the ruling, proclaim a National Day of Prayer on the first Thursday in May, as the statute requires, and call upon the nation to pray. Thus the president confirms, as his prior practices and speeches predicted, that he is a champion of his own religion rather than religious freedom, a Defender of the Faith rather than the Constitution. 
          Judge Crabb's decision documented the exclusionary nature of the Day of Prayer in exquisite detail:

 In 2008, a national Jewish organization complained that the National Day of 
Prayer has been “hijacked by Christian conservatives,” who are “excluding and 
dividing us on religious lines.  Dkt. #93-43; 
In Plano, Texas, a multicultural group and a group of Christians held “dueling 
prayer services” on the National Day of Prayer after fighting over the right to 
hold their events at the city council building and threatening to file a lawsuit. 
Theodore Kim, “After threat of suit, city steps aside in prayer,” Dallas 
Morning News, May 2, 2008, at 16B; 
In San Antonio, Texas, a local resident threatened to file a lawsuit over the 
mayor’s involvement in National Day of Prayer events. “Day of Prayer 
Lawsuit Dropped,” San Antonio Express-News, November 29, 2008, at 5B; 
In Richmond, Virginia, a Jewish organization criticized a National Day of 
Prayer event attended by various state officials at the state capitol because the 
event’s sponsor excluded non-Christians.  Robin Farmer, “Diverse gathering 
marks day of prayer: Christian-oriented event leaves some feeling excluded,” 
Richmond Times Dispatch, May 2, 2008, at B1; 
 In Anniston, Alabama, a church pastor complained that the National Day of 
Prayer has been "hijacked by evangelical Christians" because the National Day 
of Prayer Task Force has “establish[ed] a policy of excluding not only those of 
other faiths but also moderate and mainline Christians."  Brett Buckner, “A 
Nation Divided?”  The Anniston Star, May 1, 2008; 
In Bakersfield California, a Christian group created controversy when its 
coordinator stated that “[t]he National Day of Prayer is actually all about the 
Lord. So we're representing the Christian community.”  A local rabbi stated 
that "I think the National Day of Prayer, if it was ever inclusive—which I'm 
not sure it ever was entirely—has morphed into something else."   Louis 
Medina, “Day of Prayer spawns Christian event that some call divisive,” The 
Bakersfield Californian, May 1, 2008; 
In Buffalo, New York, Jewish and Muslim groups complained that the local 
National Day of Prayer events are “more about politics than prayer” and that 
the day is more accurately called the “Christian National Day of Prayer.”  Jay 
Tokasz, “Prayer Day events spur complaints of co-option by evangelicals,” The 
Buffalo News, May 1, 2008; 
In Memphis, Tennessee, local groups complained that the National Day of 
Prayer “mak[es] members of minority religions feel that unless they adhere to 
Christianity they are unpatriotic” and that "[p]eople of minority faiths are 
very alarmed by” the exclusively Christian nature of the events.  Lindsay 
Melvin, “National Day of Prayer is controversial—Some find it divisive and 
unconstitutional,” Memphis Commercial Appeal, May 1, 2008; 
In Victorville, California, local residents complained that "Hindus, Buddhists, 
Muslims and Sikhs are being excluded” from the National Day of Prayer event 
at the town hall. The organizer responded, “this entire nation was founded on 
Christian faith. The reason we are a great county is because we're Christian. 
In the Muslim countries, you can get shot if you're Christian." Brooke 
Edwards, “Faiths clash over Day of Prayer,” Daily Press, April 27, 2008; 
In Springfield, Illinois, organizers of a National Day of Prayer event at the 
state capitol were criticized after saying that event is "only about Jesus and 
                                     Jesus the Savior alone"; they had “no problem having [members of other religions] 
participate, though not in speaking roles.”  Steven Spearie, 
“National Day of Prayer returns to Capitol,” Springfield State-Journal 
Register,  April 30, 2006, at 19; 
In Troy, Michigan, a Christian group and an interfaith group fought over 
access to city hall to hold an event on the National Day of Prayer, both sides 
threatening law suits.  When the mayor announced that she would attend the 
interfaith event, she was accused of promoting “witches and Satanists.” An 
effort to recall the mayor was started later.  “Troy prayer day stirs recall 
effort,” Detroit News, May 23, 2005, at B1; “Day of Prayer splits Troy,” 
Detroit News, May 4, 2005, at K15; 
In 2004, religious leaders and nonprofit groups accused the “White House of 
using prayer for political purposes” after the President broadcast National Day 
of Prayer remarks “over several Christian and television and radio networks 
as part of an evangelical concert.” Dkt. #93-39; 
In Salt Lake City, Utah, Mormons were excluded from National Day of Prayer 
of events because they are not “in accordance with the evangelical principles 
[of] the task force,” including a belief in the “Holy Trinity” and that the Bible 
is the “only written word of God.”   Travis Reed, Associated Press, May 4, 
In Muncie, Indiana, the organizer of National Day of Prayer event denied 
requests to speak by Unitarian, Muslim and Jewish leaders, “sharply 
divid[ing]” city residents.  Stephanie Simon, “Dispatch from Muncie, 
Indiana,” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2003; 
A federal judge ruled that a school district violated the establishment clause 
by sponsoring National Day of Prayer events.  Doe v. Wilson County School 
System, 564 F. Supp. 2d 766, 801-02 (M.D. Tenn. 2008); 

Nonetheless, the White House stands with the intolerant majority. 
          The Constitution protects individuals against the tyranny of the majority. It is time for the president to end the tyranny of the religious majority and to enforce the courts' constitutional rulings. That is the best way for the government to promote the freedom of the individual's conscience. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree completely that this law is constitutionally (and morally) offensive. However, given that Judge Crabb stayed her order pending appeal, it is unfair to characterize the White House as "ignoring" the ruling. Since there is no injunction in effect, he is statutorily required to declare the Nat'l Day of Prayer. Last I checked, the President does not have the authority to pick and choose which laws he will follow. (At least THIS President doesn't labor under the delusion that he DOES.)

    Moreover, from a non-legal angle, it would be politically disastrous for Obama to sua sponte decide NOT to observe the Day of Prayer without a court order forcing his hand. He is nothing if not a cautious politician, and with a chunk of this country still loudly accusing him of being a "secret Muslim," it is unsurprising that Obama is choosing to take the path of least resistance in matters of religious observance. Remember the conservative outrage last year when he didn't hold a White House ceremony for the Day of Prayer and snubbed the NDOP Task Force event? Imagine how this issue will play out in the confirmation hearings of whomever is nominated to replace Justice Stevens... A justice who will probably end up ruling on this very case. I find it hard to blame Obama for not wanting to make the process even more of a circus then it already will be.