Barry, I’m sure you’re aware of a lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in Wisconsin challenging the constitutionality of a 1988 federal law giving the President the authority to designate the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer. We just filed an amici curiae brief representing 31 Members of Congress–including Rep. J. Randy Forbes of Virginia, who chairs the Congressional Prayer Caucus–asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit.
It’s clear that the National Day of Prayer observances are consistent with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and are deeply embedded in the tradition and history of the United States. As you know, the time-honored tradition of American leaders designating days of prayer and thanksgiving dates back to the founding era. The Continental Congress recommended that the states set apart a day for prayer and thanksgiving, and George Washington began a longstanding practice of calling the nation to prayer followed by nearly every president. Even the drafter of the First Amendment, James Madison, issued several proclamations calling the nation to a day of prayer.
The appendix to our brief catalogues hundreds of examples of presidential proclamations and other calls to prayer from colonial times to the present day. The brief notes that, “[d]espite the long history of official government acknowledgment of the role of religion in American life, there are still those who, like FFRF, seek ‘relentless extirpation’ of all religious expression and reference from public life.” Our brief explains that Supreme Court cases acknowledge that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted in light of longstanding historical practices that are part of our national heritage. For example, the Court has declared that “historical evidence sheds light not only on what the draftsmen intended the Establishment Clause to mean, but also on how they thought that Clause applied to the practice authorized by the First Congress–their actions reveal their intent.” Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 790 (1983).
Barry, I’m sure you’d prefer that presidents stop issuing National Day of Prayer declarations, but you have to admit that it is constitutional for them to continue this longstanding tradition, right?
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