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Take ‘national’ out of National Day of Prayer

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Charles C. Haynes
May 8, 2010

Last month U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb dared go where no judge has gone before and declared the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. Don’t look for her name on the short list of Supreme Court nominees anytime soon.


Judge Crabb stayed her order pending appeal, permitting official prayer-day observances to go forward as planned May 6.


In her emperor-has-no-clothes decision, Judge Crabb exposed the long-standing but much-ignored contradiction between the First Amendment’s prohibition against government endorsement of religion and annual presidential proclamations calling on Americans to pray.


Prayer is deeply important to millions of Americans, Crabb wrote, but that “does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic.”


Crabb’s ruling is almost certain to be overturned because few public officials, even appeals court judges with life tenure, want to be seen as opposing prayer. A higher court will likely paper over the problem by characterizing the government call to prayer as a mere “acknowledgement” of tradition with no more religious meaning than the annual proclamation of Ground Hog Day.


Today’s lawsuits and conflicts over state-sponsored prayer are far removed from the wide public acceptance of National Day of Prayer when Congress first mandated it in 1952. Millions of Americans now differ openly about how to pray, what to pray and to whom to pray—and many others don’t pray at all. What unified us back then (on the surface at least) divides us now—and summons us to court.


For this year’s object lesson in the folly of organizing state-sponsored prayer meetings in a pluralistic society, look no further than the flap over Franklin Graham, who was disinvited from speaking at the Pentagon’s prayer event. Graham, it turns out, has had harsh words for Islam, calling it a “very evil and wicked religion” that “enslaves” Muslims.


Pentagon officials decided it would be “problematic” to include Graham when all-inclusive prayers will be the order of the multifaith day. Graham called the revocation a “slap at all evangelical Christians” and a restriction on his “religious rights.” Ironically, Graham is the son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, whose sermons at a crusade in Washington, D.C., nearly 60 years ago led Congress to establish the National Day of Prayer.


Franklin Graham was invited in the first place because he is honorary chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, an organization chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of conservative Christian leader James Dobson. From all appearances, you might assume that the task force is a government-related entity responsible for organizing the National Day of Prayer—especially after visiting their website and seeing the words “official site” prominently featured with the Great Seal of the United States as the backdrop.


But you would be mistaken. Dobson’s group is actually a private organization that organizes prayer-day events around the nation, many in concert with local government officials. Founded in 1983, the task force rejects the multifaith approach commonly found at Pentagon observances and White House prayer breakfasts and limits speakers to those who share their interpretation of the Christian faith.


The task force appears to want to have it both ways: A congressionally mandated, presidential call to prayer (since we are, they believe, founded to be a Christian nation) but with most of the actual prayer-day events led by theologically correct pastors.


Dobson and others on the task force, of course, have every right to pray as their faith prescribes. But if they care about protecting the autonomy and integrity of religion, they should surrender the “national” part, including all suggestions that a day of prayer is an official, government-sanctioned observance.


Religious liberty requires protecting the freedom of evangelicals to proclaim a Day of Prayer—and the freedom of Catholics, Hindus, Jews and others to organize their own Days of Prayer. And the freedom of the 16 percent of Americans who have no religious affiliation to sit on their hands if they so choose.


Taking the “national” out of the National Day of Prayer by barring government from calling the nation to prayer isn’t anti-prayer or hostile to religious faith. On the contrary, “no establishment” under the First Amendment is an essential condition for authentic prayer and genuine faith.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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