Saturday, April 17, 2010

National Prayer Day is Unconstitutional?

This article from the Huffington Post describes a recent ruling by a Federal District Judge on the constitutionality of National Prayer Day. In her opinion, Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the upcoming National Prayer Day 2010 is unconstitutional and should be canceled. Needless to say, this decision has garnered a great deal of criticism. Even the Obama Administration has started an inquiry into what can legally be done to overturn this ruling. Justice Crabb stated the United States government should have no say over “whether or when” an individual prays. Additionally, Judge Crabb describes prayer as something that is completely personal. Any declaration of a prayer day, by the government, can be viewed as an issue of establishment. The issue of establishment is clearly defined in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Justice Crabb went on to say, “In this instance, government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience.” She finishes her opinion by stating that her ruling in no way bars the declaration of official prayer days until all legal means of appealing the ruling have been utilized.

In response, the American Center for Law and Justice expressed displeasure about the ruling. The ACLJ’s Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow asserted that this decision is a blatant disregard for the religious tradition of the United States. Mr. Sekulow believes that the National Prayer Day in no way breaches the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In fact, Sekulow argues that the National Prayer Day is a sign of respect for the role that religion played in shaping the nation. Additional criticism for this ruling has come from the White House. Representatives of the Obama Administration have stated that President Obama still plans to recognize a National Prayer Day. According to presidential representatives, the National Prayer Day in no way violates the Establishment Clause. Rather, as the ACLJ also suggests, the tradition of holding a National Prayer Day has unequivocally upheld the First Amendment. The government argues that the National Prayer Day does not impose a religion on any individual; it only celebrates the role of religion in the United States.

It is undoubtedly the case that Judge Crabb’s decision has gone against a long tradition of holding a national day of prayer in the United States. But, is she correct that the National Prayer Day breaches the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment? In my opinion, the National Prayer Day does not establish any form of religion in the country. Although the religious history of the United States is founded in Protestantism, it is not the case that the National Prayer Day favors any particular religion. It is merely a day to celebrate the freedom of religion that is granted to all citizens. Furthermore, the Prayer Day does not directly bias non-religion. Individuals are not being coerced in to participating in this day or any activities related to it. The government setting aside a single day to celebrate a certain activity hardly constitutes religious establishment. For these reasons, I believe that that Federal District Judge’s decision will eventually have little effect on the future of National Prayer Day.

The realization that National Prayer Day has never been struck down as unconstitutional, until this point, is indicative of the widely held belief that National Prayer Day does not constitute an establishment of religion. Along these lines it has also been argued that the Prayer Day is not an excessive entanglement of government and religion. I agree that this single day of recognition is not an example of excessive entanglement and furthermore does not violate the Establishment Clause. This issue can be paralleled to the decision in Marsh v Chambers. In Chambers, the Court ruled that the unique history of religion in the United States shows that a publicly funded prayer does not infringe on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. While there are other arguments made in the Chambers ruling, I believe that the issue of tradition is the most pertinent to the decision on National Prayer Day. If the argument of tradition can be used to show that a publicly funded prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause then it is unreasonable to suggest that the a National Prayer Day, which is not tied to any specific religion, establishes a national religion. In this way, Marsh v Chambers sets a precedent for the government arguing that the secular reason of celebrating the tradition of religion through publicly sponsored prayer is constitutional.

The most difficult issue surrounding this decision is whether or not a National Prayer Day discriminates against those individuals who are non-religious. Although I quickly brushed this issue aside at the beginning of this post, it is the most common argument made in favor of Judge Crabb’s ruling. The notion of prayer is undeniably linked to religion or at least faith in general. It may be argued that by the government establishing a National Prayer Day, the state is in turn violating the rights of atheists who do not believe in religion. However, this argument seems to be logically invalid. There are plenty of examples of “National” holidays that could be said to discriminate against anyone who does not believe in their religious underpinnings. If it is the case that the National Prayer Day violates individuals rights under the First Amendment, then so must every other holiday that has some form of religious history. (For example, Thanksgiving) However, this is not the case. The National Prayer Day is no more an establishment of religion than any other governmentally recognized holiday. The government has a secular reason for celebrating religion. Simply put, prayer has played a major role in constructing the nation. It therefore has a secular right to be recognized and it is important to do so. The National Prayer Day does not serve as an establishment of religion but rather as a way to inform citizens of their history and the role religion has played in it. For these reasons I believe that Judge Crabb’s ruling, that the National Prayer Day is unconstitutional, is unfounded and will eventually be overturned by the appeals process.


weinerjoy said...
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weinerjoy said...

Justice Crabb is correct; the US government should not dictate prayer. I'm not apposed to praying, nor am I an atheist, but I do agree with Justice Crabb that prayer is very personal.
Religious values compose an integral portion of the glue that holds American morality in check, yet allowing the government to promote religious action is unconstitutional.
There are already so many laws and standards that accommodate the religious majority of America. In class, we reviewed the Sherbert v. Verner case. That case held that Ms. Sherbert, a Jehovah Witness, unwilling to work on Saturdays, was entitled to receive unemployment benefits partly because Sunday worshipers were already being accommodated. To me, the verdict was indicative of the Judicial Branch’s reluctance to ruffle the feathers of the religious majority. If Ms. Sherbert was prevented from receiving benefits, then the benefits of those unwilling to work Sundays would be questioned, and that would offend the religious majority.
I’m very surprised that Justice Crabb was brave enough to comment on the prayer day when she knew that she would be strongly apposed. Whether it’s National Prayer Day or regular Sunday through Saturday, people who pray, will most likely be praying on that day anyway.

Alicia_W said...
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Alicia_W said...

After first reading Justin’s post, I instantly agreed with Justice Crabb’s decision because of the notion that National Prayer may not promote one specific religion but it does promote religiosity within the nation and therefore discriminates against the non believers. However, after thinking about all the other national holidays we have, such as Christmas, I changed my mind. I agree with Justin because when we have other very dominant religious holidays being promoted in such a high regards, a day of national prayer is in not discriminating in the least. Rather, it promotes a day of acceptance of all religious beliefs. Like Justin mentioned it does not coerce anyone into praying but instead it recognizes and celebrates the fact that we are able to pray freely without government or social discrimination. If Justice Crabb believes that the National Day of Prayer establishes religion, I wonder what she would say about Christmas?

Lauren P said...

I agree with the arguments Justin put forth in his post. A national day of prayer is certainly no more an establishment of religion than any other governmentally recognized holiday such as Christmas or Thanksgiving. The parallel drawn between this case and Marsh is also clear and valid. Justice Crabb’s decision is incorrect and I disagree with the argument that a national day of prayer establishes a religion. Nonreligious persons are not coerced into praying on this day and I fail to see a significant burden placed on nonreligious persons by such national recognition of prayer. The one issue I do have with the reasoning against Justice Crabb’s decision is that of the role of tradition and history. While it is definitely true that religion has played a large role in our country’s founding and history, I do not think that tradition has a place in this argument. Accommodation of religion by the government based on tradition does not seem necessarily constitutional and reliance on tradition can be dangerous.