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National Day of Prayer Takes Place Despite Court Ruling


Today marks the federally-recognized National Day of Prayer, an annual tradition that dates back to 1952.

Will it be the last?

Last month, a U.S. District Judge in Wisconsin ruled that the government-sanctioned event, established by Congress and marked with a proclamation from the president, is unconstitutional.

"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," wrote Judge Barbara Crabb, who said the event violates the First Amendment's establishment clause banning the creation of a "law respecting an establishment of religion" in the Constitution.

Crabb's decision resulted from a lawsuit filed by a group of atheists and agnostics called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who complained that the government did not have the right to tell them to pray.

But it did not stop the Obama administration from issuing a National Day of Prayer proclamation this year, just as it had last year; in it, President Obama calls on citizens to "pray, or otherwise give thanks."

"Throughout our history, whether in times of great joy and thanksgiving, or in times of great challenge and uncertainty, Americans have turned to prayer," said Mr. Obama. "In prayer, we have expressed gratitude and humility, sought guidance and forgiveness, and received inspiration and assistance, both in good times and in bad."

The ruling declaring the day unconstitutional sparked outrage from lawmakers, who said it went against America's religious tradition and urged the Obama Justice Department to appeal. Said House Judiciary Committee ranking Republican Lamar Smith: "What's next? Declaring the federal holiday for Christmas unconstitutional?"

The Justice Department did decide to appeal, and Crabb said it was fine for the National Day of Prayer to go forward until appeals are exhausted, which is why it is being recognized today despite the ruling.

Opponents of the day say they do not object to private days of prayer - and, indeed, thousands of private events are taking place nationwide today - but they say the government should not be involved; the Obama administration counters that it simply acknowledges the role of religion in American life.

Upon word that the Obama administration was appealing, Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor expressed her disappointment, saying of the president, a former Constitutional law professor, "I would have expected something better from a legal scholar."

Unlike former President George W. Bush, Mr. Obama has not held services in conjunction with the National Day of Prayer, though he has participated in a number of prayer breakfasts while in office; the decision to put less of a focus on the day prompted a false Internet-driven rumor that he had "canceled" the event because he prefers to pray with Muslims. (Snopes debunks the rumor here.)

The White House said the president, who has not been a regular churchgoer in office, is praying privately instead of holding an ecumenical service, as Mr. Bush did.

"Prayer is something that the president does every day," press secretary Robert Gibbs said. He added that "the president understands, in his own life and in his family's life, the role that prayer plays."

That's insufficient for the conservative National Day of Prayer Task Force, which works to "publicize and preserve America's Christian heritage" and has expressed frustration there is no service, as the Christian Science Monitor reports. For his part, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh complained that the White House's position marked the president "asserting his authoritarian control."

Also unhappy is 2010 National Day of Prayer Task Force honorary chairman Franklin Graham, who was disinvited from a Pentagon National Day of Prayer service over his comments that Muslims are "enslaved" by Islam, which he had called "a very evil and wicked religion." Graham is reportedly standing outside the Pentagon in protest of the disinvitation today.

Atheist groups, meanwhile, are torn: While they are happy Mr. Obama has elected not to hold services in conjunction with the day, they are frustrated that he is continuing the tradition and that he is appealing Judge Crabb's ruling.

"We are very happy he did away with the George W. Bush-era celebrations and party, but we wish he wouldn't do it at all...When church and state are separate, separate is separate," American Atheists spokesperson David Silverman told CNN.

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