The decision by a federal district judge in Wisconsin that the annual National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional seems destined to become a lightning rod issue for the Religious Right, and at a time when President Obama is weighing his options for replacing retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the most liberal member of the high court.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the law specifying the annual establishment of the National Day of Prayer -- which has become a rallying point for conservative Christians -- "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."
"In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience."
A National Day of Prayer was established by Congress in 1952, but the 1988 law formalized its observance on the first Thursday in May, which falls on May 6 this year.
Recognizing the perilous timing of this decision, the White House quickly sent out a Tweet saying that "Obama intends to recognize a National Day of Prayer." How he will recognize it could be important. In 2009, Obama issued a proclamation for the day but did not host a White House observance, as George W. Bush did when he was president.
That is unlikely to please conservative Christians, and Obama was already being criticized by atheists for the White House Tweet in support of the observance.
"President Obama is a constitutional scholar, and knows the issues at stake. He couldn't possibly have read the 66-page historic ruling by Judge Crabb at the time of this Tweet," said
Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
The FFRF, based in Madison, Wis., brought the lawsuit that resulted in Judge Crabb's decision, which was also welcomed by champions of church-state separation.
"This decision is a tremendous victory for religious liberty. Congress has no business telling Americans when or how to pray," said
the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
On the other side, Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which filed an amicus brief in support of the National Day of Prayer law, voiced
disappointment at the judge's ruling and predicted it would be overturned -- though perhaps not until it reaches the Supreme Court.
"This is the first step in what could be a lengthy legal process that ultimately puts this issue before the Supreme Court," said Sekulow, ACLJ's chief counsel. "This issue could very well be decided by the next appointee to the high court. An issue like this underscores the importance of why it's so critical for the nominee to answer direct questions about their judicial philosophy, how they view the role of judges, and their view of the rule of law."