By Congressman Michael Turner
Last week, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled our 59-year-old practice of holding a National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. In her ruling, Judge Crabb agreed with the Madison, WI-based group The Freedom from Religion Foundation, which filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that designating such a day violates the separation of church and state.
The National Day of Prayer has deep ties to the Miami Valley region and holds a great significance to me and to many citizens of the Third district of Ohio. In fact, in 1988, my predecessor in the United States House of Representatives, former Congressman Tony Hall, authored legislation that designated the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer. That legislation was ultimately passed unanimously by the House of Representatives and the United States Senate, and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on January 25th, 1988.
I believe Judge Crabb’s ruling violates both established legal precedent as well as the spirit of the principles our nation was founded upon.
Last year, even President Barack Obama specifically countered claims the National Day of Prayer violates the separation of church and state, signing a proclamation stating, “Throughout our nation’s history, Americans have come together in moments of great challenge and uncertainty to humble themselves in prayer… In 1775, as the Continental Congress began the task of forging a new nation, colonists were asked to observe a day of quiet humiliation and prayer. Almost a century later, as the flames of the civil War burned from North to South, President Lincoln and Congress once again asked the American people to pray as the fate of the Nation hung in the balance.”
The fact is, on our National Day of Prayer, local, state, and federal observances have been held nationwide, uniting Americans from all socio-economic, political, ethnic, and religious backgrounds in prayer for our nation. Governors from all 50 states and many of the governors of several U.S. territories have signed proclamations similar to the President’s.
The National Day of Prayer was first established by a joint resolution signed into law by President Harry S. Truman on April 17th, 1952. Since then, the National Day of Prayer has become a significant annual observance. A Presidential Proclamation has been signed every year since 1952, and many Presidents have held events at the White House with national religious leaders to commemorate the occasion.
During my time as Mayor of Dayton, I helped establish a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast and called on the community to come together in prayer when the nation was attacked on September 11, 2001. In Congress, I have been a member of the Congressional Prayer Caucus.
In response to the Wisconsin District Court ruling, I have become a cosponsor of H.Res. 1273, “Expressing the sense of the Congress with respect to the National Day of Prayer,” reaffirming that the National Day of Prayer is constitutional, and that it is a “needed tribute to the value of prayer and a fitting acknowledgement of our Nation’s religious history.” In addition, I was proud to attend a press conference reiterating congressional support for a National Day of Prayer with former Rep. Tony Hall and other Members of Congress.
The National Day of Prayer is a time honored tradition that respects our Nation’s founding heritage. The Constitution’s First Amendment spells out Americans’ rights of freedom of religions, and freedom of speech, which the Supreme Court has interpreted to include freedom of expression. Judge Crabb misinterpreted the National Day of Prayer as violating the First Amendment's ban against a law respecting an establishment of religion. We must insist on protecting our First Amendment rights to protect freedom of religious expression.