Ruling protects unbelievers from state-sanctioned prayers
The latest minority groups to gain recognition from the Colorado Court of Appeals as a protected class are the atheists, freethinkers, agnostics and other non-believers and doubters who object to the infusion of religion into politics.
Largely overshadowed in the media by the dust-up over legislation that would extend to members of Colorado’s lesbian and gay community the right to (almost) equal protection under the law, the Colorado Court of Appeals recently handed down an important decision upholding the separation of church and state.
The appeal by the Freedom from Religion Foundation challenged a 2010 Colorado appeals court dismissal of Freedom From Religion’s claim that the governor’s declaration of an annual day of prayer improperly mixed religion with politics.
The Appeals Court did not consider the constitutionality of future day-of-prayer proclamations, but remanded the case for the lower court to consider whether the practice should be banned entirely.
Initially filed against Gov. Bill Ritter in 2008, current Gov. John Hickenlooper became the named defendant when he assumed office. Gov. Bill Owens, who began the practice in 2004, was also named in the suit.
Altogether, six gubernatorial proclamations issued between 2004 and 2008 by Owens and Ritter were challenged.
According to last week’s Appeals Court decision, “The governor’s office issued the six proclamations in response to requests that specifically state that the National Day of Prayer Task Force intends to use them for the purpose of promoting religion, worship and prayer.”
Judge Steven Bernard wrote the decision for the appellate court.
Normally, the state proclamation comes in response to annual requests by the National Day of Prayer Task Force. This Colorado Springs organization is closely connected to Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs group that diligently works to introduce religion into the secular realm of politics.
The Alliance Defense Fund, which represents Christian organizations in legal battles with government, also weighed in on the losing side of the issue.
The stated mission of the National Day of Prayer Task Force is to “communicate with every individual the need for personal repentance and prayer, mobilizing the Christian community to intercede for America and its leadership in the seven centers of power: Government, Military, Media, Business, Education, Church and Family.”
The Court of Appeals based its decision on the Colorado Constitution’s Preference Clause, the state’s equivalent to the federal Establishment Clause that forbids Congress from making any laws respecting the establishment of a religion. The court determined that the “Colorado Day of Prayer proclamations at issue here are governmental conduct that violates the Preference Clause.”
“We reach that conclusion” the court said, “because the purpose of these particular proclamations is to express the Governor’s support for their content; their content is predominantly religious; they lack a secular context; and their effect is government endorsement of religion as preferred over nonreligion.”
Quoting an earlier precedent, the justices said Americans have been protected from the “travails” experienced by other countries as a consequence of religious authority in government. “Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”
Although the National Day of Prayer Task Force said it has no plans to appeal the case, the organization does “urge that every individual within the great state of Colorado appeal to Governor Hickenlooper and Colorado Attorney General John Suthers to appeal this decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.”
A spokesman for Gov. Hickenlooper promised that the governor’s office “will consult with Attorney General John Suthers as we consider whether to appeal this decision to the Colorado Supreme Court.”
Before reaching any decision about whether to appeal the prayer proclamation case, the governor should consider that the court’s decision “does not affect anyone’s constitutionally protected right to pray, in public or in private, alone or in groups.”
On the other hand, it’s important to note thatthese state-sanctioned prayer proclamations “reflect an official belief in a God who answers prayers ... For those who do not believe in such a God, the proclamations tend to indicate that their unbelief is not shared by the government ... In so doing, they undermine the premise that the government serves believers and unbelievers equally.”
After the House debacle denying civil unions for gay and lesbian Coloradans, the state should not seek to deny yet more minorities their rights to full participation in civic life without enduring state-sponsored prayer.