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Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C. (AP/Photo by Linda Spillers, file)

Bipartisan on prayer

Congress | House Republicans and Democrats unite in their support of the National Day of Prayer

WASHINGTON-Bipartisanship seems to be a dirty word in this current session of Congress. Battles over the size and role of the federal government in our nation's healthcare, financial, and energy systems are knocking cooperation off the political stage.

But going by developments on Capitol Hill this week, there is still at least one sector of the country's culture that can boast some bipartisan support: the nation's heritage of faith.

Nearly two-dozen House lawmakers-Republicans and Democrats alike-met this week to blast a recent federal judge's ruling that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.

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"We believe in prayer as a nation," preached Rep. Mary Fallin, R-Okla., during a Wednesday event sponsored by the Congressional Prayer Caucus.

These lawmakers have introduced a House resolution reaffirming Congress' commitment to an annual prayer day and confirming the constitutionality of such a day.

It seems that when lawmakers from both parties speak with one voice their message sometimes gets heard: Just one day after this bipartisan House gathering, the Obama administration on Thursday announced it would challenge the judge's decision.

In the upcoming showdown in the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Justice Department will argue that the National Day of Prayer, established by Congress 58 years ago, simply acknowledges the role religion plays in the United States.

The uproar began on April 15, when Wisconsin-based U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the National Day of Prayer violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

"The government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience," Crabb wrote.

In response, lawmakers lined up to blast Crabb's conclusions during Wednesday's hour-long press conference.

Democrat Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina said the sanctioned prayer day does not force Americans to petition God.

"The key phrase here it says . . . the people of the United States may, m-a-y, turn to God in prayer and meditation," McIntyre said while reading the law. "The last time I heard that you may do something, that's not you shall, that's you may."

The lawmakers repeatedly stressed the role prayer has played throughout the nation's history-citing as evidence the Declaration of Independence, George Washington's resignation speech, the paintings in the U.S. Capitol's central rotunda depicting early settlers praying, and Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

"I wonder if this judge will declare the Declaration of Independence unconstitutional," fretted Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md.

The lawmakers did not hold back in their judgments of Crabb, calling her ruling "misguided," "nefarious," and "absurd."

"I'm sure she's got the best degrees on her wall, but she is ignorant of our history," declared Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tex.

Lawmakers predicted that the 7th Circuit would overturn the ruling. Meanwhile, Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., promised that the Obama administration would ignore the ruling and issue a proclamation next week for the 59th annual observance of the National Day of Prayer.

But beyond all the verbal criticisms, it should be noted that such a ruling as Crabb's underscores the importance of the judicial nominating process, just as President Obama is about to name his second justice for the Supreme Court.

"This judge was appointed by Jimmy Carter," said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo. "Need I say anything more?"

Congress, in a joint resolution, formally created the National Day of Prayer in 1952. President Harry Truman singed it into law, and every president since has signed a proclamation on that day.

But in 2008, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit against the annual prayer day, prompting this month's ruling. The Wisconsin-based group sells $3 "Bible warning labels" on its website. The labels feature a skull and crossbones design with the words "literal belief in this book may endanger your health and life."

"Make no mistake about it, there is a struggle going on in our country over whose sets of values, whose sets of principles are going to prevail," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. "It is really that important. It's really that fundamental."

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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