Day of Prayer observed in Denver, but lawsuit looms

The faithful gathered around the Colorado Capitol on Thursday morning for the National Day of Prayer, despite a recent federal court ruling that the observance violates the constitutional ban on government-backed religion.

A similar lawsuit is pending against Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter. The plaintiff in both cases, Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, alleges Ritter has violated the state constitution by declaring a local Day of Prayer to mirror the national event.

At the center of both cases is the Colorado Springs-based National Day of Prayer Task Force, an evangelical Christian group led since 1991 by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. The group helps organize Day of Prayer events across the country.

In deciding the federal lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb of Wisconsin wrote that the prayer day is unconstitutional because its sole purpose is to encourage citizens to pray, “an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function.”

However, she postponed the injunction until all appeals are exhausted. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is appealing the April 15 ruling.

Last Friday, President Barack Obama again proclaimed the first Thursday in May a National Day of Prayer. Ritter made a similar decree for Colorado, back on March 25.

“The capitols of every state will be covered in prayer,” said John Bornschein, executive director of the National Day of Prayer Task Force.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation claims the NDP Task Force inappropriately collaborates with the government in marking the day of prayer.

“The evangelical mission of the NDP Task Force is ‘to communicate with every individual the need for personal repentance and prayer,’ ” the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote in its complaint against Ritter.

Dan Bonifazi, Denver counsel for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said the national and state prayer days blur the line between church and state.

“The NDP Task Force is a conservative Christian organization that e-mails proclamations and scripture to governors, who then cut and paste what they’re sent into their programs,” Bonifazi said.

Judge Crabb also acknowledged in her decision that much of the controversy has been generated by events planned by private organizations, such as the NDP Task Force.

“Government officials, including former presidents, have sometimes aligned themselves so closely with those exclusionary groups that it becomes difficult to tell the difference between the government’s message and that of the private group,” she wrote.

Bornschein denies that the task force is running the show.

“We don’t use bully tactics with officials. We remind them of the day,” Bornschein said. “They are free to participate or sign a proclamation. We’re simply organized.”

The case against the state will be decided by District Judge Robert S. Hyatt. Bonifazi expects a summary judgment by the end of summer.

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers has argued in court filings that the nonbinding proclamation of a Colorado Day of Prayer merely declares a special day to celebrate “the right of free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

NDP Task Force officials said it could be some time before the courts finally settle the issue.

“Regardless of the decision, with or without the participation of elected officials, we will continue to call Americans to prayer,” Bornschein said. “We need prayer.”

Electa Draper: 303-954-1276 or

Courtesy of

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