Freedom from Religion Found., Inc. v. Hickenlooper

Decision Date10 May 2012
Docket NumberNo. 10CA2559.,10CA2559.
Citation412 P.3d 392
Parties FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION, INC.; Mike Smith; David Habecker; Timothy G. Bailey ; and Jeff Baysinger, Plaintiffs–Appellants and Cross–Appellees, v. John HICKENLOOPER, in his official capacity as Governor of the State of Colorado, Defendant–Appellee and Cross–Appellant.
CourtColorado Court of Appeals

Boardman, Suhr, Curry & Field, LLP, Richard L. Bolton, Madison, Wisconsin; Inderwish & Bonifazi, P.C., John H. Inderwish, Daniele W. Bonifazi, Centennial, Colorado, for PlaintiffsAppellants and Cross–Appellees.

John W. Suthers, Attorney General, Daniel D. Domenico, Solicitor General, Geoffrey N. Blue, Deputy Attorney General, Maurice Knaizer, Deputy Attorney General, Matthew D. Grove, Assistant Attorney General, Denver, Colorado, for DefendantAppellee and Cross–Appellant.

Alliance Defense Fund, Kevin Theriot, Joel Oster, Leawood, Kansas; Michael J. Norton, Greenwood Village, Colorado, for Amicus Curiae National Day of Prayer Task Force.

Opinion by Judge BERNARD.

¶ 1 The First Amendment's Establishment Clause states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." This appeal addresses a narrow question arising under Colorado's equivalent of the Establishment Clause, which is the Preference Clause of the Religious Freedom section of Colorado's Constitution. We must determine whether the six annual proclamations of a Colorado Day of Prayer issued by Colorado Governors that are before us in this appeal violate the Preference Clause, which states that "[n]or shall any preference be given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship." Colo. Const. art. II, § 4.

I. Introduction

¶ 2 Our analysis in this case is controlled by binding decisions of the United States Supreme Court and the Colorado Supreme Court. We employ tests from those binding decisions that concern the prohibition against government establishment of religion. As a result, we conclude, for the reasons that we explain in detail below, that the six Colorado Day of Prayer proclamations at issue here are governmental conduct that violates the Preference Clause. We reach that conclusion because the purpose of these particular proclamations is to express the Governor's support for their content; their content is predominantly religious; they lack a secular context; and their effect is government endorsement of religion as preferred over nonreligion.

¶ 3 We wish, from the outset, to make several points clear about the scope of this opinion.

¶ 4 First, our decision does not affect anyone's constitutionally protected right to pray, in public or in private, alone or in groups. "No law prevents a [citizen] who is so inclined from praying" at any time, Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 83–84, 105 S.Ct. 2479, 86 L.Ed.2d 29 (1985) (O'Connor, J., concurring in the judgment), and religious groups are free to "organize a privately sponsored [prayer event] if they desire the company of likeminded" citizens, Lee v. Weisman, 505 U.S. 577, 629, 112 S.Ct. 2649, 120 L.Ed.2d 467 (1992) (Souter, J., concurring).

¶ 5 Rather, our focus is on the idea that "religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the State affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer." Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 313, 120 S.Ct. 2266, 147 L.Ed.2d 295 (2000) (emphasis supplied). We recognize that "[r]easonable minds can disagree about how to apply the [Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause] in a given case," but the goal of these clauses is clear. McCreary County v. Am. Civil Liberties Union, 545 U.S. 844, 882, 125 S.Ct. 2722, 162 L.Ed.2d 729 (2005) (O'Connor, J., concurring). Their purpose is

to carry out the Founders' plan of preserving religious liberty to the fullest extent possible in a pluralistic society. By enforcing [the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause], we have kept religion a matter for the individual conscience, not for the prosecutor or bureaucrat. At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish.... Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?


¶ 6 Second, our result is based on the record in this case, which focuses on the content of the six proclamations issued from 2004 to 2009. As we note below, the content and context of the governmental action is crucial when evaluating whether it violates the Preference Clause. See County of Allegheny v. Am. Civil Liberties Union Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573, 595, 597, 109 S.Ct. 3086, 106 L.Ed.2d 472 (1989) ; Conrad v. City & County of Denver, 724 P.2d 1309, 1314–15 (Colo.1986) (Conrad II ). As a result, we take no position on whether proclamations worded in a substantially different manner would offend the Preference Clause.

¶ 7 Third, we emphasize that we only interpret the Colorado Constitution as it applies to the Colorado Day of Prayer proclamations in this case. We do not offer any legal judgment about the constitutionality, under the First Amendment, of the National Day of Prayer proclamations issued annually by the President.

¶ 8 Fourth, the United States Supreme Court has made clear that an individual's right to choose his or her religion "is the counterpart of [his or her] right to refrain from accepting the creed established by the majority." Wallace, 472 U.S. at 52, 105 S.Ct. 2479. This recognition of the scope of an individual's freedom of conscience underlines the fundamentally important part that religious tolerance plays in American society.

At one time it was thought that this right [to choose one's religion] merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Islam or Judaism. But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the [United States Supreme Court] has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all. This conclusion derives support not only from the interest in respecting the individual's freedom of conscience, but also from the conviction that religious beliefs worthy of respect are the product of free and voluntary choice by the faithful, and from recognition of the fact that the political interest in forestalling intolerance extends beyond intolerance among Christian sects—or even intolerance among "religions"—to encompass intolerance of the disbeliever and the uncertain.

Id. at 52–54, 105 S.Ct. 2479 (footnotes omitted).


[i]t is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people look to for religious guidance.

Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 435, 82 S.Ct. 1261, 8 L.Ed.2d 601 (1962) ; see also County of Allegheny, 492 U.S. at 610, 109 S.Ct. 3086 ("A secular state, it must be remembered, is not the same as an atheistic or antireligious state. A secular state establishes neither atheism nor religion as its official creed."); School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 226, 83 S.Ct. 1560, 10 L.Ed.2d 844 (1963) ("While the Free Exercise Clause clearly prohibits the use of state action to deny the rights of free exercise to anyone, it has never meant that a majority could use the machinery of the State to practice its beliefs."); West Virginia State Board of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 638, 63 S.Ct. 1178, 87 L.Ed. 1628 (1943) ("The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to ... freedom of worship ... and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.").

II. Background

¶ 9 Plaintiffs are Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc. (FFRF) and four of its members, Mike Smith, David Habecker, Timothy G. Bailey, and Jeff Baysinger (the taxpayers). The taxpayers are citizens of Colorado who pay Colorado taxes. FFRF is a Wisconsin nonprofit organization that is registered to do business in Colorado.

¶ 10 Each year from 2004 to 2009, Colorado's Governor issued an honorary proclamation proclaiming the first Thursday of May to be the "Colorado Day of Prayer." FFRF and the taxpayers filed suit against Governor Bill Ritter, Jr., in his official capacity as Colorado's Governor. During the course of this case, Governor Ritter has been succeeded by Governor John Hickenlooper. Under C.A.R. 43(c)(1), Governor Hickenlooper is automatically substituted in Governor Ritter's place.

¶ 11 On appeal, the parties state that the Governor issued a Colorado Day of Prayer proclamation in 2010. However, the record does not include a copy of it. Because the content and context of the particular proclamations are essential factors in our analysis, and because we cannot determine the content or context of the 2010 proclamation from the record, this opinion only addresses the proclamations issued from 2004 to 2009.

¶ 12 As pertinent to this appeal, the complaint alleged that the proclamations violated the Preference Clause in Colorado Constitution article II, section 4, and it asked the court to issue an injunction enjoining the Governor from issuing such proclamations in the future. The parties submitted exhibits,...

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