CFI Urges Federal Appellate Court to Strike Down Government-Mandated Day of Prayer

October 8, 2010


Yesterday, the Center for Inquiry submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in the case of Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Obama . CFI urged the court to affirm a district court decision holding that the federal statute mandating a National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.

Congress first created a National Day of Prayer in 1952. In 1988, under pressure from the Religious Right, Congress codified the Day of Prayer as the first Thursday in May. The federal statute at issue directs the President to proclaim that on that day Americans “[m]ay turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”

In April 2010, Judge Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the federal law violates the Establishment Clause’s separation of church and state. The Obama administration appealed Crabb’s decision to the 7th Circuit, arguing, in part, that a purportedly long and unambiguous history of national prayer proclamations establishes that the Day of Prayer is a form of “ceremonial deism” that is immune from constitutional challenge.

CFI’s brief argued that the Establishment Clause prohibits Congress from attempting to influence individuals’ decisions regarding when and whether to pray. CFI maintained that because the purpose and effect of the statute is to mandate a government call for religious exercise on the part of citizens, the statute violates the Establishment Clause. CFI argued that none of the purported rationales for condoning forms of “ceremonial deism” applies to the challenged statute; that the historical record shows that many early presidents, including Jefferson, Madison and Jackson, were uncomfortable with prayer proclamations; and that because of changes in the nation’s religious demographics, government endorsements of religion does not unite, but divides the American populace along religious lines by reinforcing nonadherents’ religious outsider status.

An electronic (.pdf) version of CFI’s brief is accessible here .