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Controversy, Court Action Surround US National Day of Prayer

  • David Byrd

Thursday May 6 is the National Day of Prayer in the United States. This year, the day has been marked by controversy and a court ruling that says having a government-mandated Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.

The text of U.S. Public Law 324 reads: "The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals."

The law was originally passed in 1952 and signed by former U.S. President Harry Truman. Congress amended the law in 1988 and former President Ronald Reagan signed it to make the first Thursday in May the National Day of Prayer.

But on April 15, Wisconsin judge Barbara Crabb issued a 66-page ruling that said the law violates the U.S. Constitution by mandating a religious activity.

In her decision, Judge Crabb said that because prayer is a powerful activity, the government could not use its authority to try to influence when and how people pray. The National Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group of "freethinkers: atheists, agnostics and skeptics of any pedigree," filed the original lawsuit.

Legal action

Less than a week after Judge Crabb issued her ruling, lawyers from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) were preparing to file suit to prevent Christian evangelist Franklin Graham, the son of famed preacher Billy Graham, from speaking at the Pentagon.

Graham has repeatedly said that "evil" is done in the name of Islam. In a 2001 editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Graham said that he decried "the evil that has been done in the name of Islam or any other religion - including Christianity." This year, Graham is also the honorary chairman of the National Day of Prayer.

Mikey Weinstein, a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, a former aide in the Reagan White House, and a former member of the Judge Advocate General's office, is the head of the MRFF. Weinstein said his organization was prepared to file suit on behalf of Muslims at the Pentagon.

"A very large community of Islamic members of the U.S. Military - officers, enlisted men, civilian personnel came to us. We made it very clear that either the invitation would be rescinded [or we would sue]. We actually had our litigation team on the courthouse steps in Alexandria, Virginia. And in 48 hours the Pentagon crumbled and actually did the right thing," he said.

Controversy

Jay Sekulow is the head of the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian legal organization based outside Washington. Sekulow told VOA that rescinding Graham's invitation is ironic because his organization has done a great deal of relief work throughout the Muslim world, including in Sudan, Jordan, and Iraq.

"The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Franklin Graham through Samaritan's Purse have done more in Islamic countries to reach the needs of Muslims in need of food, and shelter and medicine than probably any organization including the Red Cross in the entire world," he said.

But it was not Graham's relief and charity work that caused the problem at the Pentagon. It was his statements about Islam.

Ibrahim Hooper is a spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Washington. He told VOA that while he believes everyone in the United States is entitled to their beliefs, it was the National Day of Prayer Task Force - the evangelical Christian organization which hosts many of the events - which Muslims disagreed with.

"The concept [of a National Day of Prayer] is not [only] for Christians obviously. But the organizers of the National Day of Prayer are notorious for excluding anyone who doesn't hold their narrow religious viewpoint. Muslims are welcome to sit in the audience at these events. They are not welcome to speak at the podium," he said.

A U.S. Army spokesman said that a "more inclusive" speaker would take Graham's place.

On its website, National Day of Prayer Task Force head Shirley Dobson said excluding Graham - whose son is serving in Afghanistan - from speaking at the Pentagon was "absurd."

Dobson - the wife of James Dobson, founder of the conservative organization Focus on the Family - said excluding Graham shows "everything that is wrong with the agenda of political correctness that is rampant in our country."

Attempts to reach Reverend Graham for this report were unsuccessful because he was traveling. He is still scheduled to speak at a House of Representatives observance.

The White House has said President Obama plans to issue a proclamation declaring May 6 the National Day of Prayer. The Department of Justice has said it will defend the statute. Judge Crabb included a caveat that her ruling would not take effect until after all appeals are exhausted. Some observers have said they believe the ruling will be overturned on appeal, but others say the case could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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