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White House to appeal Day of Prayer ruling

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Obama administration will appeal a federal judge’s ruling that invalidated the National Day of Prayer.

The decision was revealed April 22, a day after members of Congress gathered at a Capitol Hill news conference to urge the White House to work vigorously to overturn the decision. Joining the House of Representatives members in calling for action by the Justice Department were the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and other organizations.

Barbara Crabb, a federal judge in Wisconsin, ruled April 15 that a law setting a National Day of Prayer violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion. She said the observance “serves no purpose but to encourage a religious exercise, making it difficult for a reasonable observer to see the statute as anything other than a religious endorsement.”

The Department of Justice informed Wisconsin’s Western District Court of its decision to appeal Crabb’s ruling to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The Seventh Circuit consists of federal courts in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

More than two dozen House members joined together April 21 in support of the National Day of Prayer. Reps. Randy Forbes, R.-Va., and Mike McIntyre, D.-N.C., co-chairmen of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, led their colleagues in calling for the Obama administration to file an appeal and in announcing the introduction of House resolutions supporting the annual observance.

The representatives expressed sharp disagreement with Crabb’s opinion.

Extrapolating Crabb’s reasoning in her 66-page decision, “you would have to determine that if the Declaration of Independence were written today and presented to this judge, she would make one of two determinations,” Forbes, a Southern Baptist, told reporters. “She would either say that the signers of that document did not mean what they said when they said that our rights came from God Himself, from a Creator, and that they were pledging their lives, and their fortunes and their sacred honor to defend that proposition or she would determine that it was unconstitutional.”

ERLC Vice President Barrett Duke said, “[W]e are deeply offended by the fact that this judge would decide that the National Day of Prayer actually establishes religion…. I think her understanding of the establishment of religion exceeds the founding fathers’ understanding of what that means.”

Baptists “certainly agree with the need to keep government out of religion,” Duke told reporters. “And yet, you would be hard pressed to find very many Baptists who actually believe that the Day of Prayer actually establishes religion. The vast majority, the overwhelming majority, of Baptists do not believe the National Day of Prayer constitutes the establishment of religion in this country.”

Congress established National Day of Prayer as an annual event in 1952. In 1988, the law was amended to set the first Thursday of May for its observance.

The 1988 law says, “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.”

Duke and members of Congress said the law does not coerce Americans to participate but says they “may” observe the occasion.

Crabb’s opinion does not take effect until all appeals have been exhausted. The White House has said President Obama will recognize this year’s National Day of Prayer, which will be observed May 6.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R.-Texas, introduced a resolution April 20 saying it is the sense of the House the National Day of Prayer is constitutional. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R.-Kan., offered a resolution April 21 calling for the Obama administration to appeal Crabb’s decision and supporting the Day of Prayer.

Some speakers at the news conference expressed their belief the opinion would be struck down.

“The decision by Judge Crabb must, and certainly will, be overturned,” Duke said. “Only someone with an overly strict separationist view of the relationship between faith and government would consider the law to be unconstitutional.”

The ERLC “will be actively engaged in a judicial repudiation of this deeply flawed opinion,” he said.

Other speakers at the news conference included representatives from the American Center for Law and Justice, Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America.

Former Congressman Tony Hall, who sponsored the 1988 law establishing a date for the National Day of Prayer, also spoke.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization of atheists and agnostics based in Madison, Wis., brought suit against the president in 2008, charging the observance violates the separation of church and state.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Erin Roach, a staff writer for Baptist Press, contributed to this article.