U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb in Madison the National Day of Prayer that Congress established 58 years ago amounts to a call for religious action.
In a notice filed Thursday, the Justice Department said it will challenge the decision in the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. The notice came after about two dozen members of Congress condemned the ruling and pressed for an appeal.
The case was brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison-based group of atheists and agnostics who argue the National Day of Prayer violates the separation of church and state. Its co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor, said she was disappointed in the decision to appeal.
"I would have expected something better from a legal scholar," she said, referring to President Barack Obama's background as a law professor.
Her group planned to launch an online petition Thursday praising Crabb's decision and asking Obama, the principal defendant in the lawsuit, to "leave days of prayer to individuals, private groups and churches, synagogues, mosques and temples."
Lawmakers Condemn Day of Prayer Ruling
Judge Rules Day of Prayer Unconstitutional
Crabb ruled the government could not use its authority to try to influence when and whether individuals pray, writing: "In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience." She put enforcement of her ruling on hold until all appeals are exhausted.
The administration had argued the law simply acknowledges the role of religion in the United States.
Congress established the day in 1952 and in 1988 set the first Thursday in May as the day for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans to pray. An Obama spokesman has said the president plans to issue a proclamation for the upcoming prayer day, May 6. Many other state and local officials typically follow suit.
The Justice Department signaled it would appeal not only Crabb's decision on the merits of the case but also her ruling last month that the defendants had the standing to bring the lawsuit in the first place.
Crabb ruled atheists and agnostics could sue because they were injured by being made to feel like outsiders on the National Day of Prayer. She rejected the administration's argument that "psychological harm" wasn't enough to support a lawsuit.
In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation did not have standing to sue over a Bush administration initiative that helped religious charities win government contracts.
Also Thursday, the Army said evangelist Franklin Graham's invitation to speak at a Pentagon National Day of Prayer event has been rescinded because his comments about Islam were inappropriate.
Graham, the son famed evangelist Billy Graham, in 2001 described Islam as evil. More recently, he has said he finds Islam offensive and wants Muslims to know that Jesus Christ died for their sins.
Army spokesman Col. Tom Collins said Graham's remarks were "not appropriate."