Mississippi jurist encourages prayer at D.C. event

By Ana Radelat, The Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Mississippi), May 4, 2007

Washington -- Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jim Smith came to Washington on Thursday to make "judicial branch remarks" at a National Day of Prayer event on Capitol Hill.

The event, held in a cavernous room at the Cannon House Office Building, had the feeling of a religious revival and was aimed at encouraging Americans to pray.

Smith spoke about the importance of prayer in his life, especially after a bout with cancer and the death of his first wife. He said "a prayer line with God gives people their strength."

He also complained that government "is totally dominated by secularism."

"We're in desperate need of spiritual healing and restoration," Smith said.

After his remarks, event organizer Barbara Byerly made a public prayer asking God to "reverse the course" of the nation's judges for their "ungodly" rulings.

She blessed the Supreme Court's decision to uphold a late-term abortion ban, asked people to pray for God's help in efforts to ban all abortions and urged all courts to "bow their knees to the Prince of Peace."

Jeremy Gunn, director of the American Civil Liberties Union program on freedom of religion, said Smith walked a fine line by participating in the National Day of Prayer event.

"A judge should not be setting up a circumstance like this where his impartiality could be questioned," Gunn said.

Gunn also questioned Smith's comment that his Christian faith guides him in interpreting the law.

"He has a free speech right to say what he said, but are these prudent things for a judge to be saying?" Gunn asked. "We would question a judge that said, 'I look to my Republican Party principles when I interpret the Constitution.' ''

Smith, who must run for re-election in 2008, said he attended the prayer event because, "I was asked to participate." He denied his opinions reflect a religious bias, saying his faith "is a barometer for me to do the right thing."

Gunn said Smith's involvement in religious activities such as the National Day of Prayer could prompt attorneys to ask that he recuse himself from cases involving religion.

The National Day of Prayer on Capitol Hill featured a prayer by a rabbi and a Roman Catholic priest but was organized largely by evangelical Christians.

The honorary chairman was Charles Swindoll, an evangelical preacher, and the head of the National Day of Prayer Task Force is Shirley Dobson, wife of conservative Christian leader James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family.

One goal of the National Day of Prayer Task Force is to "publicize and preserve America's Christian heritage."

On Thursday, Shirley Dobson exhorted Americans to pray five minutes a day for the government, the media, the nation's education system, the family and churches "so they would preach the gospel."

The National Day of Prayer was established by former President Truman. But former President Reagan turned it into a yearly event by officially marking the first Thursday in May as the National Day of Prayer.

President Bush celebrated the day with an event at the White House on Thursday. He said prayer has aided presidents since George Washington led the nation.

"The greatest gift we can offer anyone is the gift of our prayers, because our prayers have power beyond our imagining," Bush said.

Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee, said the National Day of Prayer does not present a constitutional problem if it includes all faiths and acknowledges atheists and agnostics have a right to their beliefs.

"But to attach a certain political perspective to God is a concern," Foltin said.

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