A Collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh

Federal judge rules National Day of Prayer unconstitutional

[JURIST] A judge for US District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Thursday that the National Day of Prayer [official website] is an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. Judge Barbara Crabb issued summary judgment in favor of the Freedom from Religion Foundation [advocacy website], which challenged 36 USC § 119 [text], establishing a day of prayer. The statute, passed in 1952 and amended in 1988 to make it the first Thursday in May, says the president will declare the day so people "may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals." In her ruling, Crabb said the National Day of Prayer violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause [Cornell LII backgrounder]:

It goes beyond mere "acknowledgment" 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. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience. "When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual's decision about whether and how to worship."

The White House said that President Barack Obama still intends to recognize [official update] the day of prayer as he did last year [proclamation text].

Last month, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] ruled that a teacher-led recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance [JURIST report] in public schools does not violate the Constitution's Establishment Clause. The court also upheld the use of the phrase "In God We Trust" on currency. In November, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] ruled that a school district's policy prohibiting the performance of religious holiday songs [JURIST report] does not violate the Establishment Clause. Also that month, a judge for the US District Court for the District of South Carolina [official website] ruled that license plates [JURIST report] produced by the state bearing a picture of a cross in front of a stained glass window and the words "I Believe" violate the Constitution.

About Paper Chase

Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

© Copyright JURIST Legal News and Research Services, Inc., 2013.