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Today marks the federally-recognized National Day of Prayer, an annual tradition that dates back to 1952.

Will it be the last?

Last month, a U.S. District Judge in Wisconsin ruled that the government-sanctioned event, established by Congress and marked with a proclamation from the president, is unconstitutional.

“It goes beyond mere ‘acknowledgment’ of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context,” wrote Judge Barbara Crabb, who said the event violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause banning the creation of a “law respecting an establishment of religion” in the Constitution.

Crabb’s decision resulted from a lawsuit filed by a group of atheists and agnostics called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who complained that the government did not have the right to tell them to pray.

But it did not stop the Obama administration from issuing a National Day of Prayer proclamation this year, just as it had last year; in it, President Obama calls on citizens to “pray, or otherwise give thanks.”

“Throughout our history, whether in times of great joy and thanksgiving, or in times of great challenge and uncertainty, Americans have turned to prayer,” said Mr. Obama. “In prayer, we have expressed gratitude and humility, sought guidance and forgiveness, and received inspiration and assistance, both in good times and in bad.”

The ruling declaring the day unconstitutional sparked outrage from lawmakers, who said it went against America’s religious tradition and urged the Obama Justice Department to appeal. Said House Judiciary Committee ranking Republican Lamar Smith: “What’s next? Declaring the federal holiday for Christmas unconstitutional?”

The Justice Department did decide to appeal, and Crabb said it was fine for the National Day of Prayer to go forward until appeals are exhausted, which is why it is being recognized today despite the ruling.

Opponents of the day say they do not object to private days of prayer – and, indeed, thousands of private events are taking place nationwide today – but they say the government should not be involved; the Obama administration counters that it simply acknowledges the role of religion in American life.

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