A three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago struck down in a unanimous decision federal judge Barbara Crabb's opinion that a law establishing a day for the observance was unconstitutional. The appellate ruling came almost one year to the day of Crabb's controversial ruling.
Last year's 66-page decision by the judge from Wisconsin's Western District had threatened a tradition as old as the American republic and a specific observance in effect for nearly 60 years. Congress passed a resolution in 1952 calling on the president to establish the National Day of Prayer as an annual event, which President Truman initiated the same year and which presidents since have recognized with proclamations. In 1988, Congress amended the law to set the first Thursday of May for its observance.
Critics of last year's ruling by Crabb applauded the Seventh Circuit's decision.
"I'm grateful that sanity still reigns at the appellate court level, at least in the Seventh Circuit," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "The idea that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional is absurd on its face. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.
"Americans have been having national days of prayer long before the Constitution was ratified and ever since the Constitution was ratified, and, God willing, we will have them for many centuries into the future," Land said.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, whose organization filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing last year's opinion, commended the appeals court "for rejecting even the idea of a federal lawsuit that demands this kind of religious expression be scrubbed from the public square."
"Today's ruling sends a message to Judge Barbara Crabb and any other activist judge who would rewrite the Constitution to advance a hostile treatment of religion in public life," Perkins said in the written statement. "This is a perfect example of a harassing lawsuit that should have been dismissed at the outset."
In writing for the panel, Frank Easterbrook, the Seventh Circuit's chief judge, required only nine pages to express the court's opinion that the Freedom From Religion Foundation did not have legal standing to sue the president of the United States over the observance. The organization -- based in Madison, Wis., and consisting of atheists and agnostics -- had filed suit in 2008, saying the law violates the First Amendment's clause barring government establishment of religion.
Neither the law nor presidential proclamations implementing it injure those bringing the suit, Easterbrook wrote. The law "does not require any private person to do anything -- or for that matter to take any action in response to whatever the President proclaims," he said.
Though the annual presidential proclamation regarding the National Day of Prayer "speaks to all citizens, no one is obliged to pray, any more than a person would be obliged to hand over his money if the President asked all citizens to support the Red Cross and other charities," Easterbrook wrote. "It is not just that there are no penalties for noncompliance; it is that disdaining the President's proclamation is not a 'wrong.'"
No sensible person would assume a court should censor a president's speech to remove statements that might offend some in the audience, said Easterbrook, who was nominated by President Reagan.
He cited President Lincoln's mention of God seven times and prayer three times in his second inaugural address, which is engraved in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. "An argument that the prominence of these words injures every citizen, and that the Judicial Branch could order them to be blotted out, would be dismissed as preposterous," he wrote.
After Crabb's ruling last year, the National Day of Prayer Task Force said the tradition of designating an official day of prayer began with the Continental Congress in 1775. Afterward, President Washington issued a National Day of Thanksgiving Proclamation.
Presidents have issued similar proclamations and "appeals to the Almighty" ever since, according to the task force. Typically, all 50 governors, in addition to the president, have issued National Day of Prayer proclamations.
Crabb was nominated by President Carter. The other two judges on the Seventh Circuit who signed the opinion, Daniel Manion and Ann Claire Williams, were nominated by Presidents Reagan and Clinton, respectively.
The case is Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Obama.
Compiled by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. With reporting by Erin Roach, an assistant editor of Baptist Press.
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