Legal Challenges to Prayer on the Rise

Arizona school children are told they can't pray in front of the Supreme Court building ... Two University of Texas Arlington employees are fired for praying over a co-worker's cubicle after work hours ... In Cranston, R.I., a high school banner causes controversy when a parent complains it contains a prayer and demands that it be removed.

There are more legal challenges to prayer in the United States than ever before, says Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist organization whose business is booming as Americans increasingly tackle church vs. state issues.

"We've never had more complaints about government prayer," Gaylor says. "We have just hired a second staff attorney in July. It's turned into a cottage industry for our attorneys."

The foundation has had a huge volume of complaints about prayer in the public sector, including numerous issues involving civic and government meetings where sessions have traditionally begun with a prayer or moment of silence.

In Augusta, Ga., the city's law department just issued a legal opinion defending the city's practice of a pre-meeting prayer, saying it does not violate federal law. The statement was in response to the Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter to the mayor's office urging him to stop the invocations at the start of meetings. The foundation sent similar letters to three cities in South Carolina.

"These are flagrant violations of the laws," Gaylor says.

Not so, says Nate Kellum, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the Arizona school children and their teacher, Maureen Rigo, who say they were told they couldn't pray on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.

"Religious liberties are under attack across the country," Kellum says. "My sense is that there's some type of knee-jerk reaction, almost an allergic reaction, if someone sees the expression of religion," he says.

And the bulk of the complaints are directed at Christians, he says.

"There's an overreaching presumption that there's something wrong," he says.

But Gaylor says there's no country in the world where religion flourishes as much as in the United States, and she says conflicts over public expression are going to increase.

"Fifteen percent of the people are not religious," she says. "There's an increasing plurality of faiths. It's inevitable there's going to be this clash with more people being offended."

Kelly Shackelford, president of the Liberty Institute, represents the two University of Texas employees who were fired for praying over a co-worker's desk after hours. The co-worker was not there at the time and didn't know until months later why the employees were fired.

The university, in legal documents, said it the employee's prayer had been deemed harassment. Judge Terry Means of the U.S. Federal District Court in Ft. Worth rejected that argument.

"One of the women just said 'amen' while the other prayed," Shackelford said. "So she was fired for just saying 'amen.'"

"It's just so crazy!" he said. "There's a hostility, and there are folks who want to change this country and want to engage in some kind of religious cleansing."

Shackelford is also part of the legal team that filed a brief on Thursday defending the National Day of Prayer, which a federal judge ruled unconstitutional in April. Though the Justice Department announced one week later that it planned to appeal the judge's ruling, and despite President Obama's proclamation of National Prayer Day the next month, the Liberty Institute along with the Family Research Council took legal action because of what they claim is "the Obama Administration's weak defense of the NDP."

The council's president, Tony Perkins, issued a statement saying, "The President's attorneys failed to cite any of the key cases that would require immediate dismissal of this lawsuit because the plaintiffs lack standing to bring it. FRC plans to mount a robust defense of this important national event that a liberal judge has attempted to scrub from the public square."

Shackelford says, "The thing that makes [America] unique is that we believe our freedoms don't come from government, they come from God."

But it's exactly beliefs about God that form the core of the legal conflicts, and will continue to do so -- because whether people believe in God is something no court can have jurisdiction over.