What is the National Day of Prayer?
On the first Thursday in May, religious Americans of many different faiths will gather together to pray, especially to pray “for their country”. This day is officially recognized by the United States Congress, and was made official by then President Ronald Reagan in 1988, with the caveat that people “of all religions could come together to pray in their own way.”
Originally celebrated, though unofficially, in 1952 and suggested by the Reverend Billy Graham, the National Day of Prayer has recently become a source of great controversy. After all, that famous line in the Constitution about ‘separation of Church and State” has yet to be translated in a satisfactory way. The question is – does the National Day of Prayer break Constitutional law? Should we even have a government sanctioned religious celebration?
Some people claim that the government was founded by Christians who often said Christian prayers during legislative sessions – even the Senate fell into this trap in the 1980s when justifying the National Day of Prayer. A Senate report from 1988 made a claim that has since been debunked. Supposedly, the Constitutional Convention, which adopted the U.S. Constitution, prayed together during times of difficult decision, and this prayer became “an established practice” at Constitutional sessions. Unfortunately, history doesn’t back this claim up.
When Benjamin Franklin suggested prayer at the Constitutional Convention, he was basically ignored. According to his own notes on the meetings — “except for three or four persons, [the Constitutional Congress] thought prayers unnecessary.”
What reason, then, do we have for a nationally recognized day of prayer? Thomas Jefferson, one of the aforementioned Founding Fathers, wrote that a President has only civic duties, and thereore has “no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.” On the other hand, is the President, or any part of the government, really “directing” religious exercise, or merely suggesting it? There’s a thin line here, and many people are angry that the government has crossed it.
Atheist groups stage a similar event on every National Day of Prayer called the “National Day of Reason”, when people gather to discuss politics, the government, the state of mankind, and other non spiritual topics. This day is meant to be, like the National Day of Prayer, a day for concentrating on domestic concerns, only without the appeal to a “higher power”.
In fact, some atheist groups have sued past Presidents, including George W. Bush, and other government officials over the National Day of Prayer, claiming it is unconstitutional for a government to endorse any religious act. A website has appeared in the last year meant to counter act the lawsuit – the site is SavetheNDOP.com, standing for Save the National Day of Prayer.
No matter how you feel about the issue, for now the National Day of Prayer is safe and sound. Until there is a higher court ruling on the constitutionality of the government sponsored prayer day, the first Thursday in May will find Americans of all religions gathering to pray for their country.