Monday, October 6, 2008

Atheist Group Suing Over National Day of Prayer

The founding fathers certainly could not have imagined that people today would be so hypersensitive about anything religious in connection with the national government. Yet once again we hear the clarion call that something else has violated the constitutional ban on "government officials endorsing religion" and the so-called separation of church and state. This time the target is the National Day of Prayer. Note the recent AP article:

By Scott Bauer, Associated Press Writer Fri Oct 3, 9:26 PM ET
MADISON, Wis. - The nation's largest group of atheists and agnostics is suing President Bush, the governor of Wisconsin and other officials over the federal law designating a National Day of Prayer. The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Friday in U.S. district court, arguing that the president's mandated proclamations calling on Americans to pray violates a constitutional ban on government officials endorsing religion. The day of prayer, held each year on the first Thursday of May, creates a "hostile environment for nonbelievers, who are made to feel as if they are political outsiders," the lawsuit said. The national proclamation issued this year asked God's blessings on our country and called for Americans to observe the day with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities. Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle is named in the suit because he is one of 50 governors who issued proclamations calling for the prayer day. The foundation is based in Madison. Shirley Dobson, chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, and White House press secretary Dana Perino also are named. The foundation has filed numerous lawsuits in recent years, including one rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court last year that attacked President Bush's faith-based initiative. The White House and Doyle spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner had no comment on the lawsuit. A message seeking comment from the task force was not returned Friday.

"Hostile environment for nonbelievers who are made to feel" like "political outsiders"? Did I hear that right? Maybe someone can explain to me what that means. How are they "outsiders"? Did someone take away their right to vote? Were they forbidden their constitutional right to free speech (obviously not)? Were they banned from participating in the work of government? Did the government say they had to pray?

The stated mission of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is "protecting the constitutional principal of separation of church and state." The First Amendment of the Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ." The phrase "separation of church and state" does not actually appear in the constitution. According to Wikipedia the phrase "is generally traced to an 1802 letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, where Jefferson spoke of the combined effect of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause."

Unfortunately some have taken the "freedom of religion," where the state cannot dictate the religious practices of its citizens, and reinterpreted it as "freedom from religion," where the state must be entirely separate from any religious service or intent. If we rule out prayer are we then catering to the religion of atheism? Although there has been a lively debate about whether atheism is indeed a religion, the government, in one instance called it such. Note this article from 2005:

Decides 1st Amendment protects prison inmate's right to start study group

Posted: August 20, 2005
1:00 am Eastern

© 2008

A federal court of appeals ruled yesterday Wisconsin prison officials violated an inmate's rights because they did not treat atheism as a religion. "Atheism is [the inmate's] religion, and the group that he wanted to start was religious in nature even though it expressly rejects a belief in a supreme being," the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said. The court decided the inmate's First Amendment rights were violated because the prison refused to allow him to create a study group for atheists. Brian Fahling, senior trial attorney for the American Family Association Center for Law & Policy, called the court's ruling "a sort of Alice in Wonderland jurisprudence." "Up is down, and atheism, the antithesis of religion, is religion," said Fahling. The Supreme Court has said a religion need not be based on a belief in the existence of a supreme being. In the 1961 case of Torcaso v. Watkins, the court described "secular humanism" as a religion. Fahling said today's ruling was "further evidence of the incoherence of Establishment Clause jurisprudence." "It is difficult not to be somewhat jaundiced about our courts when they take clauses especially designed to protect religion from the state and turn them on their head by giving protective cover to a belief system, that, by every known definition other than the courts' is not a religion, while simultaneously declaring public expressions of true religious faith to be prohibited," Fahling said.

Well, based on the above, I suppose the only fair thing to do now is to have a "National Day of Non-prayer." But then that's about what the other 354 other days are.

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