Reporting from Washington — A fixture since President Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer 58 years ago, 2010 could be the last time the event is observed if the White House fails in an appeal against a court ruling that it violates the ban on government-backed religion.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled April 15 in favor of the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation in a suit brought against President Obama. She ruled that the federal law that designates a National Day of Prayer and requires an annual presidential proclamation violates the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment.
Despite the ruling, several observances took place around the capital Thursday, including the Pentagon, the Cannon House Office Building and the steps of the Capitol. In her decision, Crabb said ceremonies could still take place pending appeals.
Charles Haynes, a 1st Amendment scholar specializing in religious liberty at the Washington-based Freedom Forum, said he expected the president to succeed with his appeal. But he said Crabb was merely being consistent with past rulings and essentially saying "what everybody knows about the inherent [constitutional] contradiction of the National Day of Prayer."
"The courts are not immune to public dissatisfaction," he said, adding that a judge could possibly cite a 1983 Supreme Court decision that upheld the right to legislative prayer on grounds that "the offering of prayer is a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country."
"It is possible the courts would argue that the day of prayer goes all the way back to our Founding Fathers and that they are not going to disturb it," Haynes said. "Prayer, in this case, is merely 'ceremonial deism.' "
On a sidewalk outside the Pentagon, evangelist Franklin Graham prayed Thursday after the Army decided two weeks ago to rescind his invitation to its National Day of Prayer service. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation had objected, saying Graham had previously insulted people of other religions, particularly Islam.
Graham is honorary chairman of the private National Day of Prayer Task Force, which leads national events featuring strictly Christian prayers. The Army said its leadership decided Graham's past comments made him "inappropriate as a speaker for an open religious service."
Haynes said the National Day of Prayer was an attempt to unify people of different faiths, but fights have become more common in the last few years. He attributed this, in part, to the prominence the George W. Bush administration accorded to private evangelical Christian groups such as the National Day of Prayer Task Force.
"Presidents may be required to make the proclamation," he said. "But they can choose to make it a big deal. President Obama's approach is more consistent with the treatment of prayer as a form of ceremonial deism."