DENVER – Nonreligious groups reacted with dismay after a Colorado Supreme Court ruling rejected a legal challenge to the governor’s right to issue Day of Prayer proclamations.
In the high court’s written ruling issued Monday, it found that the nonreligious did not suffer harm and do not have grounds to sue over the controversial proclamations.
The battle over National Day of Prayer proclamations is not new. But with state supreme court reversing an appeal’s court ruling, the road for continued challenges is cut short, leaving the nonreligious with little recourse.
“Being formally told to pray every year by their governor is what the Colorado Constitution so obviously sought to protect citizens from. This decision guts the no preference clause of the Colorado Constitution, saying no preference shall be ‘given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship,’” said Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which filed the lawsuit.
The 5-2 ruling found that the “psychic harm” suffered by the foundation’s members – Mike Smith, David Habecker, Timothy G. Bailey and Jeff Baysinger – wasn’t “injury sufficient to establish individual standing.”
The justices also called the “incidental overhead costs” insufficient to establish taxpayer standing, pointing to nominal costs related to the proclamations. The court also pointed out that no one was forced to participate.
The case was filed in 2008, after then-Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, spoke at a Colorado Day of Prayer celebration at the Capitol in 2007. In October 2010, a district court dismissed the suit. In February 2011, an appeal was filed, and in May 2012, the Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s ruling.
Republican Colorado Attorney General John Suthers petitioned the Supreme Court in June 2012 to hear the case, which led to the ruling Monday.
“Contrary to the court of appeals, the supreme court holds that the use of public funds to cover the incidental overhead costs associated with issuing the honorary proclamations does not, by itself, constitute an injury sufficient to establish taxpayer standing. Furthermore, contrary to the trial court, the supreme court holds that the psychic harm endured by Respondents as a result of media coverage revealing the existence of the honorary proclamations does not, by itself, constitute an injury sufficient to establish individual standing,” the Supreme Court stated in its ruling.
Justices William W. Hood III and Gregory J. Hobbs Jr. offered the dissenting opinions.
“By rejecting both taxpayer and individual standing, we abdicate our responsibility to consider a matter of great public importance – a matter where Colorado citizens allege that the state’s executive branch has violated an individual constitutional right that goes to the heart of who we are as people,” they said.
But those affiliated with the National Day of Prayer rejoiced after the long legal battle, pleased that the majority opinion swung in their favor.
“Public officials today should be as free to issue prayer proclamations as the founders of America and Colorado were,” said Michael Norton, a former Colorado U.S. attorney and counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which fights for religious rights and represented the National Day of Prayer Task Force.
“State and federal courts nationwide have repeatedly upheld and recognized prayer proclamations as a deeply rooted part of American history and tradition,” Norton said.
Incoming Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican, said the ruling provides adequate clarity.
“This decision by the state’s high court means that like the president of the United States and other governors around the country, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and future Colorado governors are free to issue honorary proclamations without fear of being tied up in court by special interest groups,” Coffman said. “It was the correct ruling by the justices after careful consideration of the issues.”