Just weeks away from the annual National Day of Prayer, a federal judge ruled on Thursday that the day is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb struck down a federal statute creating the "National Day of Prayer," concluding that it connotes endorsement and encouragement of a particular religious exercise.
"Defendants argue that the purpose and effect of the National Day of Prayer is to acknowledge the role of religion in American life, which is not objectionable," she wrote. "However, the line between 'acknowledgment' and 'endorsement' is a fine one."
Attorneys with the Christian legal firm Alliance Defense Fund are urging President Barack Obama to appeal the decision.
ADF Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster argues that the national prayer day is "America's heritage" and "belongs to Americans."
"The National Day of Prayer provides an opportunity for all Americans to pray voluntarily according to their own faith – and does not promote any particular religion or form of religious observance," Oster contends. "It does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and this decision should be appealed."
The annual prayer event was created in 1952 by a joint resolution of the United States Congress, and signed into law by President Harry S. Truman. Since then, all presidents have issued proclamations designating the National Day of Prayer each year.
Last year, President Obama issued a proclamation designating the first Thursday of May as the National Day of Prayer, and prayed privately.
Despite the ruling, Obama still intends to recognize the day this year on May 6.
The lawsuit against the annual prayer day was filed in October 2008 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The original defendants were President George Bush and Dana Perino, his press secretary. President Obama and Robert Gibbs are the current defendants.
Judge Crabb rejected arguments that the NDP is a longstanding tradition, noting that no such tradition existed in 1789.
She noted recent controversies around the event and how "religious expression by the government that is inspirational and comforting to a believer may seem exclusionary or even threatening to someone who does not share those beliefs.
"One might argue that the National Day of Prayer does not violate the establishment clause because it does not endorse any one religion. Unfortunately, that does not cure the problem. Although adherents of many religions 'turn to God in prayer,' not all of them do."
Crabb also noted in her ruling, "The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy."
Opposing the ruling, Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice called the decision "flawed" and expressed confidence that it will be overturned.
"If the appeals court fails to reverse this decision, we're confident the Supreme Court will hear the case and ultimately determine that such proclamations and observances like the National Day of Prayer not only reflect our nation's rich history, but are indeed consistent with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment," he stated.
Last month, Shirley Dobson, chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, was dismissed from the lawsuit. The task force has organized thousands of local prayer events throughout the country, including gatherings in Washington, D.C., with government leaders.
Dobson says it is imperative "now more than ever before" to pray.
Though the National Day of Prayer was ruled unconstitutional, Crabb made clear that religious groups are free to organize prayer events and the U.S. president also remains free to discuss his own views on prayer.