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April 25th, 2010
Freethought San Marcos: National Day of Prayer ruled unconstitutional, but …

Freethought San Marcos: A column

A federal district court in Wisconsin has held the National Day of Prayer, scheduled for May 6, unconstitutional. Judge Barbara B. Crabb wrote that the National Day of Prayer Proclamation violates the First Amendment because it “goes beyond mere ‘acknowledgment’ of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience. When the government associates one set of religious beliefs with the state and identifies nonadherents as outsiders, it encroaches upon the individual’s decision about whether and how to worship.”

BUT those who rely on the government to promote religion should not worry or be discouraged. Former constitutional law professor, now President, Barack Obama is appealing the decision. Were I a betting person, I would not bet against the decision being overturned. While the appeal is pending, the district judge has stayed the effect of her ruling, and President Obama will be able to issue his proclamation on behalf of the federal government officially sponsoring a national day of prayer.

Most Americans see nothing wrong with government promotion of prayer, perhaps because they see prayer as an innocuous activity. They don’t really believe that some supernatural being somewhere in the universe actually answers entreaties to heal our illness, or save our drug-addicted family member, or rescue us from economic disaster. Others may not see prayer as a purely religious practice. After all, our athletes regularly subject us to invocations for divine assistance for their athletic performance, both before and after their intrepid efforts, by the use of signs and gestures. They apparently believe that some god somewhere cares about their game.

Another frequently heard argument for government-sponsored prayer is that we have done this for most of the country’s history, so it must be okay. This position fails to appreciate the role of courts in our system of government. The Constitution is not a self-enforcing or self-implementing document. It was not until 1803 that the US Supreme Court declared any act of the federal government unconstitutional. When it did so (in the case Marbury v. Madison), it did not initiate the decision on its own. It ruled on a petition initiated by an aggrieved citizen. Such petitioning is the only method for having the court rule on the constitutionality of any action of government. And this is what happened in the National Day of Prayer case.

The lawsuit ruled on by Judge Crabb was filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) in 2008. Had FFRF not filed the suit, no court would have been able to rule on the question. Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of FFRF, argues that The National Day of Prayer’s worst aspect is that it calls on “all” Americans to pray, an affront to those who practice no religion and to those who keep their religion as a private matter: “this excludes [all non-Christians] as Americans, it disenfranchises us. It does the insidious thing of equating piety with good citizenship. Or being an American.” To others, the practice suggests that “some Americans are preferred members of the political community.” Gaylor went on to say that “It is an egregious violation of personal conscience for Congress and the President to tell ‘all Americans’ that we must pray, that we must set aside an entire day once a year for prayer, and that we should gather with others to pray in homes and churches.”

Dan Barker, the other co-president of FFRF and author of ”Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist” and ”Godless,” who debated at Texas State University in San Marcos last fall, said “The National Day of Prayer presupposes that ‘all Americans’ believe in a god, and further, believe in a god that answers prayers! The law and the annual presidential proclamations inappropriately equate piety with being an American citizen, and turn nonbelievers into political outsiders.” There should be no doubt in the mind of a rational person that this government-directed prayer practice destroys the freedom of conscience that is a hallmark of what it means to be an American.

While the practice of presidents calling for a day of prayer dates back to 1775, not all presidents have approved of the practice, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Andrew Jackson. President Lincoln did something that many see as more appropriate in calling for “A Day of National Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.” But today’s evangelical Christians are not as interested in humility as they are in using the power of government to encourage religious worship. Nevertheless, unconstitutional actions by the government can occur for years before some person or some entity decides to challenge them. Such challenges cost money, time, and emotional and physical stamina. Many times, people have complained to me about an unconstitutional practice of government, but they haven’t been willing to step forward and challenge the practice. Without the courage and means to do so, unconstitutional practices continue for centuries, just as they have done in this case before FFRF decided to take action.

Perhaps the most disingenuous comment on this prayer day lawsuit was made by Topeka, Kansas Mayor Bill Bunten: “Some of these judges have lost their way. Every day is a day of prayer in most Kansas lives, whether they are Christian or Muslim or Jewish or whatever, and to say that a prayer day is illegal is just ridiculous.” The problem with Bunten’s position is that no one has said that a prayer day is illegal. No one is even attempting to prevent Mr. Bunten and all others who choose to do so from declaring a day of prayer and praying until blood oozes from their brows. All the FFRF has done is challenge placing the imprimatur of government on a religious practice.

Judge Crabb, however, properly recognized the importance of prayer in the lives of many people when she wrote, “No one can doubt the important role that prayer plays in the spiritual life of a believer. In the best of times, people may pray as a way of expressing joy and thanks; during times of grief, many find that prayer provides comfort. Others may pray to give praise, seek forgiveness, ask for guidance or find the truth.” Nothing in her opinion denies any American the right to pray. All her opinion does is prevent the government from sponsoring an activity that violates the First Amendment, which states in pertinent part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

But Judge Crabb also noted in her ruling that the National Day of Prayer Task Force openly excluded non-Christian groups, particularly Muslims, and generally excluded those religious groups that are not Christian, Abrahamic, and messianic, not to mention groups representing other belief systems and worldviews. In 2005, a member of a Hindu congregation in Plano, Texas, was excluded from National Day of Prayer services at the Plano city hall, and Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and others were excluded from services held at the city hall in Troy, Michigan. That same year, a member of the Task Force, Lori Wagner, asserted that the group was Christian-only.

In 2003, a minister-organizer of the National Day of Prayer activities in Muncie, Indiana, said that non-Christians could “follow the devil and Judaism and all of that” after he refused to allow Jewish and Islamic prayers at the Muncie city hall event. In 2004, Mormons were excluded from a National Day of Prayer event in Salt Lake City because the Task Force does not recognize the Mormon faith according to a spokesman for the Task Force, Mark Fried. A California organizer for the 2000 National Day of Prayer Task Force refused to accept Muslims, Adventists, Jews, Mormons, and members of other religions as participants in Task Force services.

Since 1952, The National Day of Prayer has been entangled with private religion, mostly Christianity, and would be more properly called The National Day of Christian Prayer. During a several-weeks long crusade in Washington, D.C., the Rev. Billy Graham suggested that it was the only way to bring Americans back to God. In that year, members of Congress introduced a joint resolution for an annual prayer day, with one senator calling it a measure against “the corrosive forces of communism which seek simultaneously to destroy our democratic way of life and the faith in Almighty God on which it is based.”

Today, the planning group for the prayer day is dominated by Focus on the Family, an evangelical Christian group that aims to influence government policy. The group, led by Shirley Dobson, has positioned itself to appear to be the government sanctioned National Day of Prayer organizers. The Rev. Franklin Graham, successor to his father, is the honorary chairman of the National Day of Prayer event. Focus on the Family has made the prayer day explicitly about Christian conversion. After all, the group believes that God doesn’t answer the prayers of those who don’t approach Him in the Christian way.

The mission statement of the Task Force provides that “The National Day of Prayer Task Force’s mission is to communicate with every individual the need for personal repentance and prayer, mobilizing the Christian community to intercede for America and its leadership in the seven centers of power: Government, Military, Media, Business, Education, Church and Family.” The group intends “In accordance with Biblical truth” to, “Foster unity within the Christian Church” and “Publicize and preserve America’s Christian heritage.”

While few Christian leaders have opposed the prayer day publicly, the Rev. Dr. Janis J. Kinens of Advent Lutheran Church told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “I find it both troubling and dangerous that so many zealous believers in any religion want to legislate their particular understanding of faith and God for everyone else. We don’t need to look too far to see the horrific and devastating results of a theocracy form of government.”

A commentary by Jamie Stark in The Daily Cardinal, the campus newspaper of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, made the point that spiritual freedom should not need to use the “government like a crutch.” The column did not see the judge’s opinion as “an affront to prayer or religious Americans.” It noted that “annual proclamations only began in 1952. An official date, the first Thursday of May, wasn’t chosen until 1988. Many founding fathers were intensely opposed to any mixing between church and state.” The commentary continued: “At first glance, it may seem cozy to live in a country that supports my religion. … But how would I feel as a member of a different, minority faith? No faith at all? From the religious side, I grew up in a church that pooh-poohed an American flag in the entry hall because, according to my pastor, the church should transcend such arbitrary borders as the state…. This is about religious Americans’ ability to practice their faith, or lack of faith, free from government control, and the government’s responsibility to create an environment of equality for all citizens…. The cold reality of theocracies like Iran should be enough to scare any of us away from legislating religion.”

The National Day of Prayer Task Force has wasted no time in using Judge Crabb’s ruling to raise money for its evangelical causes. The Task Force wants us to “Donate Now to Defend our Freedom to Gather and Pray,” as though this freedom is in any danger. And they make it easy. You can donate right through your cell phone and have the money billed to your mobile phone account. Its website wants us “To Save the National Day of Prayer,” as though having a national day of prayer could be prevented in some way in the United States. Nothing whatever prevents religious groups from declaring a national day of prayer, if they do not involve the government. Of course, having the manifest approval of government makes the event more majestic in the eyes of the organizers.

All of this public, conspicuous praying seems to disobey Christ’s teaching recorded in Matthew, ch. 6: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. … But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Would that it were so.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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13 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: National Day of Prayer ruled unconstitutional, but …

  1. This is very sad… Too bad there isn’t someplace that people who want to pray could get together… Like a church 🙂

  2. *Yawn*

    I wonder when Lamar is going to talk about something else. His lack of new topics is getting rather boring.


  3. I enjoyed this column piece. I was thinking of this portion of scripture as I was reading your column. It always amazes me how some Christians seem to pick only the teachings of Jesus Christ or any part of the Bible (New or Old Testaments) that seem to fit their agenda.

    All of this public, conspicuous praying seems to disobey Christ’s teaching recorded in Matthew, ch. 6: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. … But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Would that it were so.

  4. THAD – There are many versions of Matthew 6:2 that are quit different from the one you quoted. The version you quoted is the most popular for atheists, anti-christians, agnostics, or otherwise anti-religous people. And for understandable reasons.

    However, if you read all the different version, and Matthew in it’s entirely, you would see what the passage was intending to convey. Matthew 6:2 is saying that whatever you do in public doesn’t matter unless you do the same in private. Praying in public is not sufficient enough. One must also pray in secret, in private.

    Many scholars can point to several passages in the Bible that contradict you conclusion, “All of this public, conspicuous praying seems to disobey Christ’s teaching.” Even the most basic understand of the life of Christ and his disciples invalidates your conclusion. But nice try anyway. The discussion is a worthy one.

  5. Very thought provoking article. Except for the parts between the words, “A federal district court” and “it were so.”

  6. Your statement, “the practice of presidents calling for a day of prayer dates back to 1775,” is incorrect. The judge’s ruling lists the two facts relevant to the case: (1) in 1952 Congress passed Public Law 82- 324 (“The President shall set aside and proclaim a suitable day each year, other than a Sunday, as a National Day of Prayer…”) and (2) in 1988, a statute provided that “The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer…” Your date was wrong by 177 years.

  7. How sad, Christian practice of public prayer is slowing being taken away. Next thing people will complain about, those of us who pray over our meals in a public place.
    More than any other time, our country need God’s help in the overwhelming circumstances that we are facing.

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