National Day of Prayer, and a national debate over prayer

The National Day of Prayer is an annual civic and religious observance established by Congress in 1952 and later mandated to fall on the first Thursday of each May. The first official National Day of Prayer was proclaimed by President Harry S Truman.

Two court rulings, in 2010 and 2011, have made the day particularly controversial.

The National Day of Prayer does not specify denomination and is proclaimed each year by the president. However, some groups feel that the proclamation violates the separation of church and state even though no religious group is singled out.

This source guide provides resources for covering the issue.

Background

In an April 15, 2010, decision, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the law specifying the annual establishment of the National Day of Prayer “goes beyond mere ‘acknowledgment’ of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context.”

However, in 2011, an appeals court overturned that decision. The Presidential Proclamation for a National Day of Prayer was deemed constitutional by the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, filed a lawsuit claiming that the president’s proclamation was a breach of church and state. The court found that the group could not prove injury and overturned Crabb’s ruling.

Resources

Articles and blog posts

Organizations

  • National Day of Prayer Task Force

    The National Day of Prayer Task Force is a private organization headed by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. The group, whose mission is to “publicize and preserve America’s Christian heritage,” organizes National Prayer Day events.

    Contact: 800-444-8828.
  • Freedom From Religion Foundation

    The Freedom From Religion Foundation is based in Madison, Wis., and has become one of the leading activist groups on the nontheist scene. The foundation publishes Freethought Today magazine.

  • Americans United for Separation of Church and State

    Americans United for Separation of Church and State describes itself as a “nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving church-state separation to ensure religious freedom for all Americans.”

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