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Obama admin. to appeal prayer ruling

From NBC's Pete Williams
The Justice Department says it intends to appeal a federal court ruling that found the National Day of Prayer to be a violation of the separation between church and state.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed against President Obama and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. One week ago, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that the president's declaration of a national day for prayer was unconstitutional.

The government today informed the court that it will appeal the decision.

Since 1952, when Congress required the president to issue a proclamation designating a national day of prayer, all presidents have done so. Beginning in 1988, the day has been the first Thursday in May, because Congress amended the original law to declare it the day for the event.

A Wisconsin group, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, challenged the law and named Obama and Gibbs as defendants after they defended the tradition as "an acknowledgment of the role of religion in American life."

But Judge Barbara Crabb ruled last week that while the government can be involved in prayer when it serves a secular purpose, it cannot go further and call for religious action on the part of its citizens. "No one can doubt the important role that prayer plays in the spiritual life a believer," she wrote. 

But, she said, that "does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, 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.  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."

But Judge Crabb also ordered that her ruling would not take effect until the government had completed its appeals, a process that starts today.