WASHINGTON — About two dozen members of Congress yesterday condemned a federal judge's ruling that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional, saying prayer has long been part of the country's history.
"The American people believe in prayer. The American people believe that prayer changes things," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., as he urged the Obama administration use "all means at its disposal" to challenge the April 15 decision. Several of the lawmakers also called on the Justice Department to appeal the ruling.
The government has yet to decide what its next step will be, said Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman. The ruling is still being reviewed.
A federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional because it amounted to a call for religious action. The judge did not bar any observances until all appeals are exhausted.
Congress established the day in 1952 and in 1988 set the first Thursday in May as the day for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans to pray. May 6 is this year's date.
Matt Lehrich, a spokesman for President Barack Obama, said yesterday the president still planned to issue a proclamation for the upcoming prayer day.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wis.-based group of atheists and agnostics, filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2008 arguing the day violated the separation of church and state. The Obama administration has countered that the statute simply acknowledges the role of religion in the United States.
In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb wrote that the government could no more enact laws supporting a day of prayer than it could encourage citizens to fast during Ramadan, attend a synagogue or practice magic.
Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., said the National Day of Prayer proclamation doesn't force anyone to pray.
"It's an opportunity for us to do what we've done historically, what our historic underpinnings are and understanding the precedent that has been set," said McIntyre, co-chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, has introduced a resolution in support of the National Day of Prayer, calling it constitutional and "a fitting acknowledgment of our nation's religious history."
In a related situation, the Army is considering whether to rescind a National Day of Prayer invitation to evangelist Franklin Graham to appear at the Pentagon amid complaints about his description of Islam as evil, a military spokesman said yesterday.
Army Col. Tom Collins said withdrawing the invitation "is on the table," but no decision had been made. He said Army brass would make the decision.
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation raised the objection to the appearance, citing Graham's past remarks about Islam. Mikey Weinstein, president of the foundation, said the invitation offended Muslim employees at the Pentagon. He said it would endanger American troops by stirring up Muslim extremists.
Graham, the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, said he would be a guest of the Pentagon and would speak only if he were still invited. Collins said the invitation wasn't from the Pentagon but from the Colorado-based National Day of Prayer Task Force, which works with the Pentagon chaplain's office on the prayer event.
Task force chairwoman Shirley Dobson said in a written statement that U.S. leaders have called for a day of prayer during times of crisis since 1775 but the tradition is under attack.
"Enough is enough," said Dobson, wife of conservative Christian leader James Dobson. "We at the National Day of Prayer Task Force ask the American people to defend the right to pray in the Pentagon."
After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Graham said Islam "is a very evil and wicked religion." In a later op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, Graham wrote that he did not believe Muslims were evil because of their faith, but "as a minister ... I believe it is my responsibility to speak out against the terrible deeds that are committed as a result of Islamic teaching."