Tuesday, April 20, 2010

National Day of Prayer ruled unconstitutional

A federal judge in Wisconsin has declared that the National Day of Prayer is an unconstitutional practice.

In a lawsuit brought about by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Madison-based organization that seeks to preserve a true separation of church and state, Judge Barbara Crabb stated that the National Day of Prayer, held annually since 1952, was an unconstitutional exercise of presidential power.

"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," Crabb wrote in her opinion. "The government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience."

Crabb did not say that prayer itself was improper, but rather that the promotion of prayer by the president undermined the people's rights to determine for themselves whether or not prayer was good for the nation in their minds.

Is the proclamation unconstitutional? The First Amendment reads that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Americans are certainly welcome to pray if they want, but the government has no right to establish laws on religion. And while the First Amendment doesn't prohibit the free exercise of religion, its intent was to prevent a state religion from taking power.

The colonists had seen firsthand, after all, how that power could wield influence over a leader, specifically King George III, who exercised this power as head of the Church of England. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson advocated a "wall" to separate church and state.

So why is it important to ensure that these two forces -- state and religion -- stay separate? A democratic state that believes itself to be working on God's behalf is dangerous, and will undoubtedly conduct business in order to appease the supposed interests of the Lord. In doing so, a state that endorses religion will interfere with the rights and privileges of the people who don't adhere to that belief, or the rights and privileges of those who don't adhere to any belief.

On the other side of the coin, religion is unsafe as well. A democratic state that endorses religious beliefs will shape those beliefs based out of majority opinion, which would mean that these beliefs would be amendable according to that opinion. But if God is infallible, how can we change His rules every time a new party comes into power? Such a system would do a disservice to religious institutions, discrediting the validity of God's word if it's amendable by public opinion.

The ruling made by Judge Crabb is just: the president shouldn't be making proclamations of religious days of prayer, even if it's a non-specific prayer. A day of reflection, where prayer can be encouraged by outside non-governmental institutions, is more appropriate because it allows non-believers to be included as well.

The president is certainly welcome to pray on his own -- heck, he can even encourage others to pray alongside with him. But creating a national day of prayer, using his office in order to encourage that prayer rather than encouraging it as an ordinary citizen would, is a breach of his powers. It endorses an idea that not every American may subscribe to, an idea based upon a belief that is intended to be religious in nature. Such a concept serves no purpose, either to the people or to the faith.

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