WASHINGTON (RNS) A federal district judge in Wisconsin has ruled that the 1988 law creating the annual observance of the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.
"It goes beyond mere `acknowledgement' of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context," U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled Thursday (April 15).
"In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience."
The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, which filed suit in 2008 to stop the prayer day, hailed the decision as a "sweet victory."
"The law is on our side," said the group's co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor. "The judge had the courage to make the decision on the merits of the case and not worry about public opinion."
The White House issued a statement Thursday on Twitter saying: "As he did last year, President Obama intends to recognize a National Day of Prayer."
In 2009, Obama issued a proclamation but did not host the traditional White House observance that his predecessor, George W. Bush, had held while he was president.
The American Center for Justice, which filed a brief in the case supporting the law on behalf of 31 members of Congress, called the decision "flawed" and predicted it could end up before the Supreme Court.
"It is unfortunate that this court failed to understand that a day set aside for prayer for the country represents a time-honored tradition that embraces the First Amendment, not violates it," said chief counsel Jay Sekulow.
The law creating the national observance dates to 1952 and was made more specific in 1988, calling for it to be marked annually on the first Thursday in May.