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Colorado Atheists Lose Day-of-Prayer Protest

(CN) - Neither "psychic harm" nor the incidental costs associated with recognizing an annual Day of Prayer in Colorado gives atheist taxpayers standing to advance a constitutional challenge, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Though the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed with the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 2012 that the state's Day of Prayer proclamations violate a constitutional bar on a religious preference, a five-justice majority for the state Supreme Court ordered the case against Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, dismissed on Monday.

"Even assuming that the governor used public funds to pay for the paper, hard-drive space, postage, and personnel necessary to issue one Colorado Day of Prayer proclamation each year, such incidental overhead costs are not sufficiently related to respondents' financial contributions as taxpayers to establish the requisite nexus for standing," Chief Justice Nancy Rice wrote for the majority. "If such costs were sufficient to confer taxpayer standing, any and all members of the public would have standing to challenge literally any government action that required the use of a computer, basic office supplies, or state employee time."

"Psychic harm" allegedly suffered by the Coloradans as a result of media coverage revealing the proclamations does not establish individual standing either, the court found.

"Although we do not question the sincerity of respondents' feelings, without more, their circuitous exposure to the honorary proclamations and concomitant belief that the proclamations expressed the governor's preference for religion is simply too indirect and incidental an injury to confer individual standing," Rice wrote. "To hold otherwise would render the injury-in-fact requirement superfluous, as any person who learned of a government action through the media and felt politically marginalized as a result of that secondhand media exposure would have individual standing to sue the government."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation criticized Rice's ruling.

"Being formally told to pray every year by their governor is what the Colorado State Constitution so obviously sought to protect citizens from," said Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Dan Barker in a statement. "This decision guts the no preference clause of the Colorado State Constitution saying no preference shall be 'given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship.'"

Justice Gregory Hobbs Jr. joined a dissent by Justice William Hood that says the proclamations are more like speech than law.

"Evaluating that speech would thrust this court into an uncomfortable role: that of parsing and potentially censoring the governor's speech for religious content," Hood wrote. "While the constitutional balance of our governmental system may give us the power to do so, the separation-of-powers concern certainly counsels caution."

Shirley Dobson, chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, applauded the court's decision.

"Prayer is an indispensable part of our heritage, and as citizens, we must remain faithful in our commitment to intercede for our states and nation during this pivotal and challenging time," Dobson said in a statement.

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