UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 9:53am
AUSTIN – Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott leading a multi-state coalition of 29 attorneys general today took legal action to defend the annual National Day of Prayer. An amicus brief authored by Attorney General Abbott urges the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit to overturn a lower court ruling, which held that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.
The National Day of Prayer statute was established by Congress in 1952. Since then, presidents have issued proclamations that designate a single day each year as the National Day of Prayer. In 2008, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group of atheists and agnostics, filed a lawsuit claiming that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. On April 15, 2010, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb issued a decision ruling that the National Day of Prayer violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which provides: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
In the amicus brief filed today, the states argue that public acknowledgments of God at official functions have been customary since the nation’s founding: “Invocations have opened presidential administrations, legislative sessions, and judicial proceedings throughout our Nation’s history.” The states’ brief also argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that governmental institutions’ public acknowledgments of God are constitutional. In a 1983 case styled Marsh v. Chambers, for example, the high court upheld the constitutionality of state and federal governments opening every legislative session with a clergy-led prayer.
The states explain that the district court’s decision not only strikes down the National Day of Prayer, but also threatens Memorial Day. The federal law establishing Memorial Day requests that the president issue a proclamation “calling on the people of the United States to observe Memorial Day by praying, according to their individual religious faith, for permanent peace.” The states explain that “if the district court is correct, and Congress may not enact laws that require the president to issue a proclamation inviting those who wish to pray to do so, then the statute providing for the observance of Memorial Day would presumably be unconstitutional as well.”
Finally, the states argue that the ruling of the federal district court in Wisconsin also threatens the states’ own traditions of issuing prayer proclamations. For example, the brief notes that Gulf coast state officials designated Sunday, June 27, a day of prayer due to the recent oil spill. The states argue that if the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional, “the actions of the governors of all fifty States will likewise be called into doubt, for doing nothing more than acknowledging our Nation’s religious heritage, consistent with our Nation’s customs and traditions.”