National Day of Prayer – Unconstitutional?

National Day of Prayer

In 1952, in a unanimous act by both Houses of Congress, the “National Day of Prayer” (NDP) was enacted into law and signed by President Harry Truman. In 1988, a bill passed by Congress and signed into law by Ronald Reagan further established the first Thursday in May as the day when the president may issue a proclamation asking Americans to pray for their country and its leaders. During each of his eight years in the White House, George W. Bush in particular assembled religious leaders of multiple faiths in the East Room of the White House where he would call on them to pray for the country. In fact, throughout the history of the United States, on more than 160 occasions, presidents issued proclamations in which the citizens of the country were urged to pray and seek divine favor for the United States.

Last week in a case brought in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin in Madison, Senior U.S. District Judge Barbara B. Crabb ruled the NDP is unconstitutional as it “serves no secular function.” The case was brought by the atheist association “Freedom From Religion Foundation” (FFRF), and was filed against the Executive Branch – first George W. Bush and his Press Secretary Dana Perino, and then, beginning in January 2009, it joined President Obama and his Press Secretary Robert 
Gibbs, all being named as co-defendants in the action. The FFRF sought a declaration that the law violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs argued “Mandated Prayer Proclamations by the President exhorting each citizen to pray constitutes an unabashed endorsement of religion…” In her decision, Judge Crabb agreed with the plaintiffs that the only possible purpose for the “National Day of Prayer” was to serve as an 
endorsement of religion.

The First Amendment addresses the issue of government’s relationship with religion in two clauses within that amendment. In pertinent parts, the Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and then “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first of these two clauses, known as the Establishment Clause, has been cited over the years as an absolute prohibition between the functions and operations of government and 
religion in American society (hence, the basis of the more common phrase “separation of church and state”). However, recently there has been much debate about the meaning of the term “establishment of religion.” Some argue that the term was intended to prohibit only the establishment of a single national church or the preference of one religious sect over another. Others believe the term prohibits the government from promoting religion in general, as well as the preference of one religion over another, or the preference of religion over agnosticism and atheism.

This Week’s Questions

Does the “National Day of Prayer” functionally serve as a government endorsement of religion? Does the federal government’s endorsement of a “National Day of Prayer” violate the “establishment” clause of the Constitution? Is it the role of the federal government in any way to sponsor a “day of prayer” even if it encourages 
participation of all faiths and works to encourage religious diversity?

Left Opinion

Judge kills ‘National Day of Prayer’: Hey Christians, what say we keep it buried?

By Dan Calabrese

Now that a federal judge has struck down the 1952 federal law establishing a “National Day of Prayer,” Christians are presented with a golden opportunity – to shrug their shoulders and say, “Who cares?”

That’s probably not what most “Christian leaders” will do, but it’s what all should.

The Christian community has become far too fixated, especially during the era of instant mass media, on seeking government endorsement and approval of everything we hold dear. That, as Solomon would have said, is meaningless – a chasing after the wind. And we waste our time and twist ourselves like pretzels in the 
pursuit of it.

Now you will find few writers who are as convinced as I am of the power of prayer. Not only is prayer valuable because God does listen and does answer prayers, it’s also good for the person praying because it cements a closer relationship with God, which makes the power of the Holy Spirit that much more intense in your life. The result of that is that you are more effective at everything you do in life.

This is not to endorse any Joel Osteen-type nonsense about how people with a good attitude toward God will necessarily be blessed with spiritual riches. This is a fallen world and you are going to have problems in it, maybe financial ones. But staying close to God gives you more power and effectiveness to deal with these problems and makes you less likely to add further, self-inflicted problems to the ones that are unavoidable as a consequence of living.

So yeah. Pray. Everyone. Only good things can come of it.

But we don’t need the federal government declaring a “National Day of Prayer,” and there are some serious drawbacks to seeking one.

For one thing, any such national day must by constitutional mandate be non-sectarian. Why do Christians want prayer watered down so as to satisfy the watchful eye of federal judges?

The same problem applies to the movement to promote prayer in public schools. You don’t want public school teachers leading them, because if that’s part of their job, you know the prayers are going to be insincere and largely devoid of meaning. And “silent” prayer as an alternative? There’s nothing stopping you from doing that any minute of the day that you want, anyway. Do you think it somehow makes the prayer more special because your teacher gave you permission to be quiet for a few seconds? Your teacher probably wishes you would do that more often as it is.

As Christians go to court to try to reverse this ruling, they will argue that the “National Day of Prayer” is constitutional because it doesn’t constitute an endorsement of Christianity or any other particular faith. And if that argument proves true, then what good are the prayers? Why are we fighting for the right have the government put its hand on our heads and bless our meaningless prayers?

The government is not the partner of the people of God in the work of God’s kingdom. It is a secular necessity allowed by God, but not seen as one of the tools of his eternal purposes. When Christians desire so strongly to have government approve of their prayerfulness, you have to wonder if Christians have turned government into a mini-god of its own.

The other big problem with the so-called “National Day of Prayer” is that it implies we’re doing fine as long as we all pray on a given day. Serious Christians know that we are instructed to pray without ceasing. Every day is supposed to be your day of prayer. Even if a bunch of people do pray at the government’s behest on a given day (and the over/under on people who will do that is approximately seven), what would be the value of this?

If Christians want others to see the value of prayer, here’s a better idea: Rather than have a “National Day of Prayer” where the government tells us all to pray, spend your time praying for the needs of other people and let them know you’re doing it. Sincerely taking an interest in the well-being of others and taking their needs to God, is a much better way to demonstrate the power of prayer than going back to court to try to get the government’s blessing to seek God’s blessing.

That’s what “Christian leaders” should do. They won’t. But they should.

Dan Calabrese is the co-founder and editor in chief of North Star National. Reprinted with permission from North Star National.

Right Opinion

Let us pray for America’s Exceptionalism

By David H. Landon

In the recorded history of men and nations, the United States, using any reasonable and critical standard, must be acknowledged as an exceptional nation. Most Americans would not regard that as a controversial statement, although President Obama has gone to great lengths to distance himself from this principle.

Americans sometimes forget just how exceptional we are as a country. The U.S. has a remarkable free speech tradition, which also gives unprecedented protections to the press. It gives rights to those accused of crimes that are unparalleled in history or anywhere else in the world including Europe. Our Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure separates us from many other so called “enlightened” nations. America has a more open government than any other nation and the governed here continue to push for increasing openness. Finally, America was the first nation to enumerate all of these restrictions on government in a constitution.

Before she was a nation, America was an idea. That idea was that basic freedom was the right of every man, woman and child. America was founded in an act of rebellion against a colonial power that had failed to recognize that freedom. America was the first nation founded on the belief that the rights of man are inherent and God-given. At the beginning, we based the American experiment on the belief that a Supreme Power granted rights and freedom to man. To further protect that freedom from the government, American “exceptionalism” supported the precept that the powers of the government were derived from the consent of the people. Many had come from Europe in hopes of practicing their religious beliefs in the wide breadth of that freedom. In fact, in most of the 13 colonies there was a predominant Christian denomination. As other, non-Christian religions arrived on our shores, they also were welcomed.

From Congregationalists in New Hampshire and Massachusetts to Quakers in Pennsylvania, 
from Catholics in Maryland, to Anglicans and Huguenots in South Carolina, the protection of religious freedoms was at the foundation of this country’s beginning. In each colony there was an understanding that in order for them to be free to practice the religion of their choice, they must be willing to defend the rights of all men and women from all of the 13 colonies to worship God as they chose.

The First Amendment to the Constitution clearly laid out the relationship between Government and religion. Having suffered through a century of the dictates of the Church of England, the Founders made certain that there would not be a national religion. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” became known as the Establishment Clause and put to rest any fears of a national church. The Amendment goes on to say, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” This is the free speech guarantee for religious thought and pronouncement. In the 220 years since the ratification of the Constitution, the Establishment Clause has been changed by liberal courts from a protection of religion from government to the secular interpretation of protection of government from religion. Nowhere in the Constitution does the phrase “separation of church and state” appear. As often as the phrase is bantered about by those attempting to purge all signs of religious expression in government, one might think it had its own Amendment.

In America the call to prayer from our leaders to the American people goes back to 1775, “when Continental Congress and General Washington each asked the colonies to pray for wisdom in forming a nation.” In 1813, President James Madison proclaimed a day of prayer. Madison is credited with drafting the Establishment Clause. During America’s Civil War, President Lincoln proclaimed a day of “humiliation, fasting and prayer.” In 1952, a joint resolution by Congress was signed by President Truman, declaring an annual observance of a “National Day of Prayer.” In 1988, President Reagan signed an amended version of the law establishing the first Thursday of every May as the permanent date for the “National Day of Prayer.” Each year, the president and state governors issue proclamations, asking people of all faiths to pray on this day.

There has been a recent decision by a federal district judge in Wisconsin, in which the “National Day of Prayer” was found to be unconstitutional in that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Judge Barbara B. Crabb wrote in her decision that the “National Day of Prayer” served no “secular purpose” and therefore must be struck down. Her decision misinterprets the Establishment Clause. To their credit, Crabb’s decision has been appealed by the Obama administration.

The “National Day of Prayer” is a day on which, according to the 1952 law, the president may ask Americans of all faiths to consider praying for their country and its leaders and to petition God to show our nation His mercy and love. It is a day on which we could ask that our American “exceptionalism” be renewed and continued. It is voluntary. It makes no demands. It establishes no form of national religion. For those who believe in God, it acknowledges that all that we have achieved as a nation has not arrived by accident. For non-believers there is no required participation. It is as harmless to non-believers as it is inspiring to believers. Perhaps the words of Ben Franklin (a celebrated “deist” among non-believers) says it best: “…the longer I live, the more convincing proof I see of this truth that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at

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