What's Wrong with the National Day of Prayer?
By Eric Lane
The National Day of Prayer (NDP) is not historical. It was created by Congress in 1952 during the anti-communist hysteria that gripped our nation. The scheduling of the event used to change but it was codified by Congress in 1988 (after pressure from the Religious Right) as the first Thursday in May. This year the event takes place on May 1.
One of the reasons Americans United for Separation of Church and State objects to the NDP is that the National Day of Prayer has become a vehicle for spreading misinformation about American history and society.
In recent years, most NDP activities have been coordinated by the “National Day of Prayer Task Force,” an organization based in Colorado Springs and run by Shirley Dobson, wife of Religious Right radio broadcaster James Dobson. They have used the NDP to promote bogus “Christian nation” history with the purpose to convince Americans that the founding fathers intended to establish this country on ‘Biblical principles.” This simply is not true.
The greatest gift the Founders bequeathed to us is the separation of church and state. It is what ultimately makes us truly free. With the ratification of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791, for the first time in human history, the right to follow the dictates of one’s own conscience was made into law. No longer would citizens have to follow the dogmas of an established state church. What we take so easily for granted today, our right to believe or not believe as each one of us sees fit, during the Revolutionary era, was considered a revolutionary idea.
The legal birth of religious freedom actually occurred in 1786 in Virginia with the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. The Act opened with these words: “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free . . .” It then continued, “Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
The Act declared freedom of the mind and conscience to be the birthright of every human being. This was truly revolutionary! Religious liberty was a natural, God-given right and the state could not force any citizen to support any religion. All citizens were free to practice their own faith or no faith at all openly and freely without fear of government interference. We are very proud to have on our San Antonio AUSA Chapter Board a direct descendent of one of the signatories of the Act.
The two men most responsible for the passage of the Act were Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, the architect of the First Amendment.
The Founders did not oppose religion. Many had seen or studied what religious persecution had done in Europe and right here in the Colonies. During the American colonial period, alliances between religion and government produced oppression and tyranny on our own shores.
I can’t read the hearts of Fundamentalist Christians or the Religious Right. But they should know how the separation of church and state has protected their right to follow their own religious beliefs.
We are truly blessed to live in a country where each one of us can follow the dictates of our own conscience. We don’t need the government to tell us when or how to pray or not pray. Allowing government to set aside certain days for prayer and worship implies that the state has some say over our religious lives when it does not. It is simply not the business of government to advise when, if and how people pray.
Government is generally forbidden to deliver, sponsor, orchestrate, or encourage prayers. Since the nation's founding, however, many legislatures have traditionally opened their meetings with prayer. Given this historical tradition, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that legislative prayers are constitutionally permissible if, but only if, they do not use language or symbols specific to one religion. (Courts have held, however, that elected school boards are different than legislatures, and are forbidden to open their sessions even with nonsectarian prayers.) Furthermore, prayergivers at legislative sessions may not exploit the prayer opportunity to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief. A number of federal courts of appeals have thus held that sectarian prayers (i.e., prayers using language specific to one faith) before legislatures or other representative bodies are unconstitutional. One court, with jurisdiction over Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, has taken a more limited view, concluding that sectarian prayers in legislatures are permissible as long as they do not proselytize.
Even apart from using sectarian language, there are many ways that legislative prayer might impermissibly proselytize, advance, or disparage a particular faith. Those who do not wish to be present for a prayer must be allowed to leave and may not be excluded from participating in the rest of the meeting. And those who do not wish to stand or bow their head for the prayer must be allowed to remain seated and must not otherwise be penalized for their nonconformity. A prayer practice may also be unconstitutional if a legislative body selects prayergivers based on their faith or excludes some faith groups from offering prayers. Thus, if a legislative body invites clergy to deliver prayers, it should strive to invite a wide variety of faiths and should instruct the prayergivers to make their prayers nonsectarian, ecumenical, and inclusive of minority faiths.
If your representative body offers a prayer and one or more of the following statements is true, the prayer practice may be unconstitutional:
- Clergy or other invited guests offer the prayers, but minority faiths are excluded from being prayergivers.
- The prayers often contain explicit references to a particular deity, symbolic religious language, quotations of religious texts, or statements that promote, advance, or denigrate a particular religion.
In October 2010 Bulverde resident and AUSA member Sandi Root sought assistance from AU in an effort to end a city council tradition of using Christian prayer to open meetings [as shown in the photo by Herald-Zeitung's Laura McKenzie] AUSA President Eric F. Lane posted to several area newspapers, the text of which is shown below. This situationn is being monitored by AUSA.