Court Rules National Day of Prayer Constitutional

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on May 10, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The 7th Circuit recently overturned a previous ruling declaring a National Day of Prayer unconstitutional.

In late 2010, plaintiffs in the original suit, Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. v. Barack Obama, claimed that the National Day of Prayer violated the establishment clause of the U.S. constitution.

Congress passed 36 U.S.C. §119 in 1988, which reads, "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."

Freedom From Religion and several other organizations joined together and initiated a suit against President Barack Obama and his Press Secretary. They claimed that the National Day of Prayer violated the constitutional establishment clause, which prevents the federal government from establishing state religion.

A federal district court judge in Wisconsin ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, issuing a declaratory judgment that §119 was invalid and enjoining the President from issuing more National Days of Prayer.

The 7th Circuit overturned the district court's ruling. The critical point for the 7th Circuit was not a claim that the establishment clause was violated. It was that the plaintiffs lacked standing.

Plaintiffs must have standing to bring a case to court. For example, if your next door neighbor's lawn mower gets stolen by a thief, you have suffered no injury. You lack standing, and can't bring a case against the thief.

Essentially, the 7th Circuit found that the defendants were not injured by §119. Freedom from Religion and the other organizations claimed they were injured because they felt excluded and unwelcome when they were asked to engage in prayer by the President. They claimed that prayer was "contrary to their principles," according to the 7th Circuit opinion.

The Court made an effort to distinguish that the President was not requiring all citizens to pray. He was encouraging citizens. "...[A]lthough this proclamation 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," wrote Chief Judge Easterbrook in the opinion.

There was no decision on whether or not the National Day of Prayer statute violates the establishment clause. The lack of standing was enough to vacate the district court's judgment and injunction, making it once again constitutional.

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