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There a few places in my life where I am a minority. Being left handed, being blue-eyed and being an atheist. Only the last one is ever a problem, and while it is not the same as being gay or an easily identified ethnic minority, there is a level of discrimination that is often invisible to those not part of this minority.

The base state assumption in this country is that you have a religion. For the most part people don’t pry but if you mention that you have no faith, that you are confident the universe is a natural phenomenon then you very often become instantly the "other".

"Originally posted at Squarestate.net"

Not being an aggressive atheist, I don’t put my belief that those who have a faith are deluding themselves out there very much. After all, as long as they are not hurting people with their faith why should I care? When they are hurting people with their faith (as in trying to deny rights to gay citizens or withholding medical treatment from children) fixing that situation is all about the harm they are doing. That it is religiously motivated does not matter in the solution at all.

Still there are a lot of things in our society that are like sandpaper on the skin of atheists. One of them is the National Day of Prayer. Every year on the first Thursday of May, the President issues a proclamation urging the people of the United States to pray. For those with a faith that involves prayer this seems pretty innocuous, but it is a real thumb in the eye for citizens without a faith or who don’t have prayer as part of their religious tradition.

It has actually been enacted by Congress twice, once in 1952 and once in 1988. Yesterday a Wisconsin District Court Judge ruled that is was an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. USA Today reported that Judge Barbara Crabb wrote:

"In fact, it is because the nature of prayer is so personal and can have such a powerful effect on a community that the government may not use its authority to try to influence an individual's decision whether and when to pray,"

This is a good decision, not because it rules in a way that I favor but because it is actually supporting the idea enshrined in the First Amendment that the government should not be involved in the practice of religion at all. It would be one thing for believing members of Congress to hold some kind of meeting where they pray and as private citizens urge citizens to pray, but when they act in their official capacity as the government of the United States to urge prayer they are crossing the line which the Constitution sets.

The case was defended for the government by the Department of Justice. They defend in any case where the Congress has passed a law; that is part of their job, to defend all laws passed by the Congress until and unless they are found to be unconstitutional. The DoJ argued, rather weakly to my mind, that the day just acknowledged the role of religion in the United States. There has been no decision on appealing this ruling but it is likely it will be appealed up to the Supreme Court, if for no other reason than it is going to be a politically hot issue and the President would rather not be seen to be pandering to godless atheists, even if it is the constitutional thing to do.

Conservatives and Republicans are going to be shouting and gnashing their teeth about this issue. They will be trotting out their stale arguments about the United States being a Christian nation (even though the Framers consciously and affirmatively refused to make it such when they had the chance to declare it so in the writing of the Constitution). The reason they use this argument is they are actually trying to make it so now, not because the Framers thought it or would have wanted it to be that way.

This is the reason I find this to be good law. If we are to resist the urge to legislate morality then we have to keep all religion as far from the law of our nation as possible. Personally I do not find that religious people are any more or less ethical or moral than anyone else, so the assumption that their religiously informed attitudes should receive special deference in the law is not a valid one. If legislators use their upbringing, whether atheist, Wiccan, Pagan, Islamic, Christian, Buddhist or otherwise to inform their thinking and votes on an issue is fine. It becomes a problem for everyone else if they try to in any way impose that upbringing on others.

It is mildly unfortunate that this decision came down during an election cycle that has seen the Republicans use increasingly inflammatory rhetoric. Expect politicians like the crazy-eyed Rep. Michele Bachmann to be spouting about judicial activism and claiming it is another step towards Socialism. They will even lay it at the feet of the president, even though his DoJ has been defending against this suit.

In the end it I think it is likely that this will be upheld. As Judge Crabb notes there is no secular purpose which the government would like to achieve that can be reasonably tied to an official holiday that urges prayer. In fact any attempt to list a purpose other than a nebulous recognition of religion in America would make it even more unconstitutional than it is.

Much of the time when we talk about the law lately it seems that it is to lament that some little bit of liberty has been lost. Today this is not the case. If the National Day of Prayer is abolished believers do not lose anything and those of us citizens who do not believe or do not pray are no longer made to feel like we do not really belong to this nation. I know that those on the Religious Right will disagree, but this is a good thing for a nation that is to often pulling itself apart. Any reduction in the feeling of exclusion by any minority is a good thing for democracy and a good thing for the United States.

The floor is yours.

Originally posted to Something the Dog Said on Fri Apr 16, 2010 at 06:34 AM PDT.

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