Seventh circuit upholds National Day of Prayer mandate

From the Texas Attorney General office

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has vacated a lower court's ruling and dismissed a lawsuit claiming that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. Last Thursday's ruling found that the Freedom From Religion Foundation had no standing to challenge the President's National Day of Prayer proclamation because the presidential action had not caused the plaintiffs any harm.

"Last week's ruling was an important victory for religious liberties," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said. "The federal appeals court overturned the lower court's decision and dismissed the challenge to the National Day of Prayer."

In their 2008 lawsuit, the plaintiffs contended that 36 U.S.C. §119, the federal statute naming the first Thursday in May as the National Day of Prayer, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Rejecting the plaintiffs' argument, the appellate court wrote: "Section 119 imposes duties on the President alone. It does not require any private person to do anything – or for that matter to take any action in response to what the President proclaims."

The federal court added: "If anyone suffers injury, therefore, that person is the President, who is not complaining."

The court also observed: "Since the founding of the Republic, Congress has requested Presidents to call on citizens to pray." The court acknowledged that virtually every President has done so, beginning with President George Washington's proclamation on October 3, 1789, establishing Thanksgiving Day.

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 plaintiffs filed a lawsuit challenging the Day's constitutionality. 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 July 2010, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, leading a multi-state coalition of 29 attorneys general, took legal action to defend the annual National Day of Prayer. An amicus brief authored by Attorney General Abbott urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit to overturn the lower court's ruling.