Prayer Day: Say amen (if you want to)

This editorial appeared in Tuesday's Boston Globe

From time to time, public officials try to enforce their religious beliefs on others, but the National Day of Prayer hardly qualifies as such an effort.

In 1952, Congress passed a joint resolution directing the president to proclaim such a day, "on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation." This yearly observance — like similar celebrations such as German-American Day and Wright Brothers Day — is purely voluntary, and has never been terribly controversial.

Until now. On April 15, a federal judge in Wisconsin held that the National Day of Prayer violates the First Amendment, which commands Congress to "make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Ruling in response to a lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, US District Judge Barbara Crabb wrote that public officials may not lawfully encourage prayer "any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge, or practice rune magic."

Yet there's a clear difference between a broad acknowledgment of prayer and an endorsement of a specific group's rituals. To ignore that difference only undercuts the credibility of civil-liberties litigation, which has long played a vital role in blocking actual infringements on religious freedom.

Sensibly, the Obama administration is appealing Crabb's ruling. The White House also says that the president "intends to recognize a National Day of Prayer" Thursday. Americans who observe the day will say "amen," and there's no harm done to those who don't.