Bill Ritter Jr. was not the first governor of Colorado to declare the first Thursday in May as a day of prayer.
But he was the first to attend a celebration of the National Day of Prayer at the state Capitol, joining a crowd of several hundred Christians in 2007. His appearance at the event caught the attention of a Wisconsin-based atheist group, which has mounted a campaign its leaders hope will dissuade him and other governors from participating again.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a lawsuit in state court, seeking to stop the governor from issuing any proclamations it says endorse a particular religion and send a message to nonreligious residents “that they are expected to believe in God.”
“Everybody has become too comfortable with this interaction of religion and government. Sometimes someone needs to push back,” said David Habecker, 63, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs and a member of the foundation.
Habecker was ousted as town trustee in Estes Park, Colo., in a 2005 recall after he refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance because he objected to the phase “under God.”
The suit is part of a broader campaign by the group to overturn the 1952 law designating a National Day of Prayer and mandating an annual proclamation by the president.
The group also recently filed a federal lawsuit arguing that proclamations encouraging prayer violate a constitutional ban on government officials endorsing religion.
Of particular interest to the foundation, its leaders said, is the role of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private organization in Colorado Springs that advocates for participation in the annual observance.
The task force -- whose chairwoman, Shirley Dobson, is married to James Dobson, founder of the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family -- comes up with biblical themes and quotes for each day of prayer and lobbies vigorously for governors across the nation to use them, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of Freedom From Religion.
This year, Ritter, a Democrat, used the quotes suggested by the task force.
“They’re working hand in glove with government officials dictating prayer to constituents. That’s not what government is supposed to do,” Gaylor said.
The proclamation, said Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer, “is nothing more than what it says -- a recognition of a personal choice to pray.”
He said the state’s attorneys are confident the practice will hold up under the challenge.
“This is a well-recognized, legally established event,” he said. “It has no force of law; it’s not an executive order. It is not anything that has standing to violate the Constitution.”
There has been a steady stream of lawsuits related to government-sanctioned prayer since the 1950s, said Sarah Barringer Gordon, a professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Twenty-five years ago, a Nebraska lawsuit over the practice of opening the legislative session with a prayer led the Supreme Court to conclude that the tradition was not unconstitutional because it had not caused the establishment of religion, she said.
In a more recent case, a federal judge found that a Kentucky jurist who posted the Ten Commandments in a courthouse had violated the Constitution because he had done so for the purpose of endorsing religion.
Gordon said that unless there was evidence that Ritter has used his position to advance a particular religious agenda or attempted to proselytize, it was unlikely the suit would succeed.
In Colorado, the atheist group is not the only organization to express concern about the National Day of Prayer. Earlier this year, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, a consortium of religious groups, asked Ritter to make the ritual more inclusive of all faiths.
“We do believe the task force is hijacking the National Day of Prayer and trying to make it something of its own,” said Jeremy Shaver, director of outreach for the alliance. “There are many faith traditions, not just evangelical Christianity.”
The task force is clear about its mission to promote Christianity, said Brian Toon, vice chairman of the task force.
“The National Day of Prayer is not our holiday or event. We represent the Judeo-Christian expression of the National Day of Prayer,” he said.
He added that nothing precludes other religious groups from promoting expressions of their faith on the day of prayer in the same way the task force does. “We’re just better organized,” he said.
Next year’s proclamation will reflect some changes, said Dreyer, the governor’s spokesman. “We agree with the alliance that there is room for more inclusive language in the future.”