The National Day of Prayer

Today, by federal statute, is the National Day of Prayer. Many of our foreign readers will find it odd, but the U.S. Code requires that the President issue an annual proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a day on which Americans “may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.” Note the phrasing. The President is not to direct people to pray — that would be unconstitutional, obviously — or even to request that they pray. He is required only to designate the day as one on which Americans may pray. And meditate. But not “pray or meditate.”  Lots of lawyers’ hours must have gone into all this.

Anyway. Although the statute only dates from the 1950s, the practice of declaring national days of prayer goes back to President Washington. Consistent with the American tradition of public religion, the prayers have tended to be non-sectarian. In fact, a group calling itself the “National Day of Prayer Task Force,” which promotes observance of the day around the country, highlights its  “Judeo-Christian” character. On Monday, President Obama issued this year’s proclamation, which invites Americans to pray and “give thanks for our democracy that . . . protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience.”

That’s about as inclusive as you can get in a National Day of Prayer proclamation, but not everyone is satisfied. The Freedom from Religion Foundation brought suit a while ago to declare the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. The Seventh Circuit dismissed the case on standing grounds (no injury). This year, the American Humanist Association has declared a “National Day of Reason” to compete with the “National Day of Prayer.” I suppose reasonable theists can observe both.

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