Americans United Criticizes Appellate Court Ruling On National Day Of Prayer

Americans United sharply criticized an April 14 decision by a federal appeals court holding that citizens do not have the right to challenge the congressionally mandated National Day of Prayer (NDP).

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a legal challenge to the NDP filed by the Madison, Wisc.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, ruling that the group lacks “standing” – the legal right to sue. The court said that since the law creating the NDP requires the president to issue a prayer proclamation, only the president can challenge it.

In a press statement, Americans United called the court’s ruling “misguided and poorly reasoned.”

Americans United said the ruling establishes a dangerous precedent.

“This decision is part of an ominous trend in the federal courts to deny Americans the right to challenge church-state violations,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

“I don’t want the government telling me when, how or whether to pray,” Lynn continued. “Under the court’s logic, Congress could order the president to declare the United States a Christian nation – and no one could challenge it in court. That, to be blunt, makes a mockery of the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections.”

Writing for the unanimous court, Judge Frank Easterbrook said that the NDP does not coerce anyone to pray. He likened it to a suggestion from the president that Americans contribute to the Red Cross.

Easterbrook said the only person who would have standing to challenge the NDP would be the president, since the federal law establishing the day requires the chief executive to issue a proclamation recognizing the day.

“If anyone suffers injury, therefore, that person is the President, who is not complaining,” wrote Easterbrook.

Lynn objected to the court’s assertion that religious proclamations issued by government cause people no harm. Rather, he said, they create the impression that some people (those who choose to pray) are insiders while everyone else is an outsider.

“Government shouldn’t be in the business of advising people to pray, period,” Lynn said. “Americans who want to engage in religious activities are quite capable of consulting the religious leaders of their choice.”

In April of 2010, a U.S. district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Obama and declared the NDP unconstitutional. (See “Misbegotten Outrage,” June 2010 Church & State.)

The ruling sparked hostile comment from many in Congress and was appealed by the Obama administration.

Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, called the recent appellate decision cowardly.

“Our challenge is so strong, our claim is so correct,” Gaylor said. “The First Amendment says, ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.’ ‘No law’ should mean no law!”