Victory for FFRF!

I wrote in 2007 about the National Day of Prayer, a ridiculous ceremony created by Congress in the 1950s to urge all Americans to pray. That obviously unconstitutional objective would be bad enough, but what makes it even worse is that official National Day of Prayer events, held in city halls and government offices across the nation, are overrun by evangelical religious-right groups who claim the day as their own and don’t allow members of the “wrong” religions to participate.

Well, I’m thrilled to say that freethinkers and secularists have won a tremendous victory against this blatantly illegal government-sponsored religious exercise. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has won summary judgment in a district court over their lawsuit, filed in October 2008, which seeks to bar the federal government from recognizing the National Day of Prayer.

Judge Barbara Crabb wrote a 66-page decision that lays out the history of the National Day of Prayer, exhaustively considers the precedents, and makes a clear, thorough and compelling argument for why this event is a complete violation of the constraints placed on the government by the First Amendment. The ruling is available online, and I’ll quote a few of the choicer parts:

However, recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic. [p.4-5]

[R]eligious expression by the government that is inspirational and comforting to a believer may seem exclusionary or even threatening to someone who does not share those beliefs. This is not simply a matter of being “too sensitive” or wanting to suppress the religious expression of others. Rather, as explained in a recent book by the Provost of Princeton University and the Dean of the University of Texas School of Law, it is a consequence of the unique danger that religious conduct by the government poses for creating “in” groups and “out” groups…. [p.19]

If the government were interested only in acknowledging the role of religion in America, it could have designated a
“National Day of Religious Freedom” rather than promote a particular religious practice. [p.34]

The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy. [p.64]

The opinion also takes a few well-deserved swipes at the excuses that some judges have devised to sneak state-sponsored religion in through the back door:

Establishment clause values would be significantly eroded if the government could promote any longstanding religious practice of the majority under the guise of “acknowledgment.” [p.33]

and especially:

One judge [that would be Judge Reinhardt, who ruled for Michael Newdow in the Pledge case —Ebonmuse] observed recently that ceremonial deism is a “hazily defined” concept and suggested that it “represents mainly the judiciary’s less than courageous response” to certain longstanding religious practices. [p.44]

Crabb’s decision explained something I didn’t know – that the National Day of Prayer was proposed by conservative congressmen (including Absalom Robertson, Pat Robertson’s father) to an evangelistic revival held in Washington, D.C. by Billy Graham which called upon the government to be more Christian. She quotes from Graham’s speech to show how openly partisan and sectarian his intent was:

We have dropped our pilot, the Lord Jesus Christ, and are sailing blindly on without divine chart or compass, hoping somehow to find our desired haven. We have certain leaders who are rank materialists; they do not recognize God nor care for Him [sic]… Ladies and gentlemen, I warn you, if this state of affairs continues, the end of the course is national shipwreck and ruin. [p.6]

Graham, of course, is a private citizen and is welcome to hold the opinion that our leaders should be Jesus believers or engage in prayer – but it is not the role of the government itself to back him up. It is not the role of the government to tell people to “recognize” or “care for” one particular set of god-beliefs, nor is it any of the government’s business to tell us how, when, or whether to pray. Thomas Jefferson explained why when he wisely refused to issue religious proclamations as President:

I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them, an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands where the Constitution has deposited it… every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

This is just the first step, of course; this ruling is all but certain to go to an appeals court. Even if it survives the first round of appeals, it’s very likely to wind up before the Supreme Court, and there’s no telling how they’ll rule. Nevertheless, this is a major victory, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation deserves tremendous credit for taking on this case and fighting it out in court. If you’re an atheist and you’re not an FFRF member, why on earth aren’t you?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Monty

    Cue the theists coming in to whine about how they’re being discriminated against by not having their beliefs institutionalized.

    Looks like they already are, actually: http://www.facebook.com/pages/National-Day-of-Prayer-Task-Force/100569644677

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    I read some of the comments on that page. A lot of them say they won’t let this stop them; they’re going to pray anyway.

    The founder’s info link states that the goal is to call people to repentance and mobilize the Christian community. An explicitly sectarian goal. Yet they don’t seem to understand why the judge called it a sectarian exercise.

    They apparently construe the government not promoting their specific religion as an assault on their religion. They appear to be simply unable to imagine that other people have other religions.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Even if it survives the first round of appeals, it’s very likely to wind up before the Supreme Court, and there’s no telling how they’ll rule.

    Actually, that’s very easy to tell. If this decision goes to SCOTUS, it will be overturned. What chain of “logic” will be delivered to justify it, i cannot say, but I have no doubt at all about the outcome.

  • Geo128

    The atheists find this unconstitutional but they find the Unconstitutional health care bill constitutional.

    How hypocritical these scum of the earth are.
    Hopefully it will be overturned by SCOTUS. But Barack O messiah will use reconciliation to overturn t again won’t he ?

    Liberal scums.

  • Demonhype

    If you’re an atheist and you’re not an FFRF member, why on earth aren’t you?

    I’m unemployed, broke, and trying to finish a degree. Otherwise, I’d already be there. :)

  • Demonhype

    Love the projection, BTW. “I’m going to pray anyway” they say defiantly, as if the atheist storm troopers are going to march in and forcibly pry apart their praying finger. That just makes their own goal more apparent–they want to force and coerce the country toward “repentance and Christianity” any way they can, so they imagine that their opposition will resort to the same tactics. It would be too much for them to actually listen to us or notice the complete lack of coercive attempts or the need for government sponsorship of our lack of belief, and even if they did they wouldn’t be able to comprehend it. They require government sponsorship and establishment of their religion, so therefore we do too.

    Just like my brother’s domineering GF, when he pushed back one day and took a stand for his own liberty and she accused him of “trying to control” her–apparently if she’s not the dominant controlling one dominating his entire life, then he will become the dominant controlling one and start dominating her life. She may have been dating him for a couple years, but she obviously knew nothing at all about him or his family, because even if he was inclined to such behavior (hint: he’s not), his whole family would be giving him shit if he started dominating his girlfriend.

    She wants to dominate her partner, so therefore he wants to dominate her–there is no other way for her to interpret his stance for his rights. The Religious Right wants to create a theocracy in which there is no tolerance for unbelief or non-Christianity, therefore non-Christians and unbelievers want to create an anti-theocratic state where the Christians will be thrown to the lions–again, there is no other way for them to interpret a non-Christian or atheist taking a stand for their rights. They have no ability to conceive of a person who does not want the power that they want, who only wants a country where one group does not receive special privileges that transcend the rights of other groups. It’s a pure dichotomy of power with no middle ground.

    Pray all damn day, all you want, just pray your little heart out and speak your gooble-gobble tongues like a dork. I don’t give a shit if you pray and I don’t give a shit who you pray to. I don’t give a shit if all your churches agreed on a mutual Day of Prayer and celebrated it together and met together in one big churchy mess of prayerfulness. The only thing I give a shit about is that the government endorses it or creates an establishment of it.

    I often wonder how many of these kinds of people have mental illnesses that, if not for their manifestation within the confines of ‘acceptable’ religious beliefs, would otherwise have been diagnosed and treated? This level of hysterical paranoia sounds frighteningly similar to my paranoid schizophrenic uncle.

  • KShep

    Demonhype—-your family reunions must be a blast!

  • KShep

    I’m thinking Vegas should be floating odds for how long it’ll be before Judge Crabb receives her first death threat. I’d bet less than 24 hours.

  • KShep

    I just scrolled through those comments as well. It is amazing how out of touch some of those people are. The most thoughtful one on there, which isn’t saying much, completely distorted the meaning of the NDP, and ignored the fact that this ruling does not affect his or any believers rights, it only prevents the government from interfering with those rights.

    I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, by far, but I understand this ruling for what it is: protection of all beliefs by keeping the government out of the religion business. Too bad those idjits can’t see it.

  • Kevin Morgan

    So… if the religious right ever does get their way and gets a theocracy established here in the U.S. what sect will be the “right” one? Catholics will probably have some trouble since the most aggressive forms of Christianity seem to be Baptist or some such. Protestants are the most populous, I think, of the Xtian zombie worshipers so will they rise up and fight the Olsteen’ers? or the Dobson-ites?

    Unfortunately I have to agree with Reginald Selkirk. “When”, not if, it makes it to the supreme court I think Scalia, Alito, Thomas and Kennedy will side with the right. Maybe we’ll be forced to install cameras in our homes and workplaces to ensure compliance with the ND of P.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I approved comment #4 just for entertainment value, BTW.

  • Staceyjw

    AH, I wondered why #4 was on here. Not like we can’t take dissenting opinions, but insulting nonsense just doesn’t count.

    I just don’t get why xtians can’t understand that they CAN PRAY ALL THEY WANT, the govt just cannot endorse it. They can still have a national day of WHATEVER THEY WANT, it just can’t be FEDERALLY instituted.
    (I figured, maybe if I use some CAPS, the idiots will get it, LOL)

  • Katie M

    “If you’re an atheist and you’re not an FFRF member, why on earth aren’t you?

    I’m unemployed, broke, and trying to finish a degree. Otherwise, I’d already be there. :)”

    My situation too, I’m afraid :)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Being broke and/or unemployed is a legitimate reason for not joining, of course. But for you freethinkers with jobs, what’s your excuse? Get cracking!

    Love the projection, BTW. “I’m going to pray anyway” they say defiantly, as if the atheist storm troopers are going to march in and forcibly pry apart their praying finger.

    Demonhype wins the thread for that comment. :) That really is how these people think! It’s amazing to me.

    I suspect that those kinds of idiotic remarks are the product of a mob mentality – in their minds, their tribe is under attack and their first, reflexive response is to come to its defense. I really do feel that if you could just sit down and have a civil conversation with one of these people for a few moments, away from Fox News and the other right-wing megaphones whose only purpose is to terrify and enrage, it’d be easy to get them to recognize and admit that Christians are in no danger of being the oppressed ones.

  • Zietlos

    I think a bit differently Ebon. There is a significant difference between having a restriction put in place and having a wrongful “right” removed, yes, but they would not see it this way for a different reason… Yes, they do think the AST (Atheist Storm Troopers) are coming for them… But it is a sequential thing. I think were it a more… docile time for Xians, like, say, right after 9/11, and the Day of Prayer was removed, they would simply think “Its a necessary evil to get those evil-doers in the middle-east” (which I think is probably an actual Bush quote somewhere). They would grumble a bit, but not make a big scene about it.

    The problem is right now, Xians are (via the Rat-Singer) the “bad guy” of the week. News stations sensationalize and universalize everything they touch, so the news stations, across a 5 day news week, will have “day one: Xians support nazis!” “day 2: Xians’ leader IS a nazi”, “day 3: Xians support pedophiles!” “Day 4: No denying it, conclusive proof presented that Xians are pedos!” “Day 5: Government removes national day of prayer. Hmm, I wonder why? Isn’t it funny how I’m the only one who asks these questions?”

    You can see from the cascade of events that in a cultist mindset, they are being continuously “attacked” (justifiably so, but still they are the subject of Evil of the Week this time), and so, despite it not being related to the prior issues plaguing their group, it is interpreted as an attack by association. Were it done just after 9/11, it would instead be an attack on a different religion, so Xians would have been fine with it.

    Or so I believe.

  • Freak

    Ratzinger is the leader of the Catholics, not Christians as a whole. Quite a few non-Catholics don’t even consider Catholics to be Christian.

  • Snuggly Buffalo

    If the NDP had been removed shortly after 9/11, Christians would be freaking out because the government would be trying to “remove God from the nation when we need him most” or some similar nonsense. The people most strongly opposed to the removal of the NDP are the sorts who are going to react no matter when you try to do it.

    These people see the world in terms of “Christians” and “everyone else,” and simply trying to remove the NDP is an attempt by “everyone else” to take something away from “Christians;” no matter when you do it, they’re going to be upset by it.

  • http://generalnotions.talkislam.info Ergo Ratio

    The NPD Taskforce Facebook page has removed comments by sensible people. Censorship from a religious group. Shocker!

  • keddaw

    Thought I’d reply to comment number 4:

    The atheists find this unconstitutional but they find the Unconstitutional health care bill constitutional.

    NDP is unconstitutional. If the healthcare bill also is then so is medicare and healthcare provision for veterans. And not all atheists are in favour of healthcare do a quick google search on libertarian atheists and you’ll find some atheists who want less government.

    How hypocritical these scum of the earth are.
    Hopefully it will be overturned by SCOTUS. But Barack O messiah will use reconciliation to overturn t again won’t he ?

    No, but he can refuse to take part in it. I assume you’re on about NDP rather than healthcare…

    Liberal scums.

    Ahh, calling people liberal as an insult. With your anti-healthcare views you are economically liberal, should that be an insult? BTW. It should be liberal scum, not scums…

    And the best people are both economically and socially liberal. Ironically, economically liberal in this instance is actually economically conservative in common usage…

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    NDP is unconstitutional. If the healthcare bill also is then so is medicare and healthcare provision for veterans.

    I find this right-wing argument particularly laughable, because, if anything, the health care bill is more clearly constitutional than lots of other things our government does. The individual mandate is covered by Congress’ authority to lay taxes, while just about everything else is covered by its authority over interstate commerce. Granted, the Commerce Clause has been abused by the government for lots of things that are only tenuously related to commerce, but regulating large national insurance companies is one instance where it clearly is relevant.

    Of course, I’m under no illusions that this makes a difference to the right wing. Most people opposing health care reform, such as our friend #4 there, clearly haven’t thought out their argument any further than “Get your government hands off my Medicare!”

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Ebonmuse “Most people opposing health care reform, such as our friend #4 there, clearly haven’t thought out their argument any further than ‘Get your government hands off my Medicare!’”
    Add “…and make sure that those people don’t get it, because I deserve mine, but those people don’t.” on the end and you’ve pretty much got it. It’s all the douchiness of the crassist “Mine!”-style libertarian, the empathy-freeness of the Objectivist, the reality-averse “facts” of the modern GOP and the starkly defined in-group/out-group of the tribalist/nativist combined with the hypocritical stance that it’s okay for Real Americans® to suck at the teat of State.

  • Jim Travis

    This is a quote from the FFRF:

    The Freedom From Religion Foundation, with more than 14,000 members like you, is the largest association of freethinkers (atheists and agnostics) in the United States.

    Hmmmm. Does this mean that if you think freely (think for yourself), that you can’t possibly be a theist? That if you are a theist, you must be a mindless automaton?

    Is it really impossible to think rationally, with integrity, for yourself, to consider all the evidence, to weigh the sum of your life experience honestly and decide FOR God.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Given that it’s at best useless and at worst truly harmful, I personally regard religion as the epitome of irrationality.

    Also, thinking for yourself doesn’t equate to thinking freely. Many people are so convinced of their own ideas that they won’t consider those of others at all. While their thoughts may be original, so long as they dismiss alternatives out of hand, they are not freethinkers.

  • Jim Travis

    You make a good observation there Thump :)


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