The National Day of Prayer is an annual civic and religious ritual that was established by Congress in 1952 and later mandated to fall on the first Thursday in May, which this year is May 6. Rarely has the observance been as controversial as it is this year, thanks to a recent court ruling.
In the April 15 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.” (See news stories here and here.)
The decision seems destined to become a flashpoint in the culture wars, and at a time when President Barack Obama is weighing his options for replacing retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, a liberal member of the high court. The Obama administration has said it will appeal the judge’s ruling.
The White House also said President Obama would continue the tradition of issuing a proclamation for the National Day of Prayer, and he did so on April 30 with this statement.
Adding to the controversy over the observance, evangelist Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, was uninvited from a Pentagon event for the National Day of Prayer because of his past comments criticizing Islam. Graham is still scheduled to take part in Capitol Hill events for the National Day of Prayer, though some Muslim groups are objecting to his presence there, as this AOL News story reports.
This edition of ReligionLink provides resources for covering the issue.
Resources on the court case
- 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.
- The task force withdrew from the Pentagon event after Graham was uninvited. In a statement, Shirley Dobson said the move to uninvite Graham was “orchestrated by atheist groups, and perpetuated by the media.” Shirley and James Dobson are still set to take part in the Capitol Hill event.
- Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said Crabb’s ruling “crushes” freedom of religion.
- Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, which filed an amicus brief in support of the National Day of Prayer law, predicted that the judge’s ruling will be overturned, though perhaps not until it reaches the Supreme Court.
- The “Political Advocacy Tracker” at Christianity Today has a roundup of reactions from Christian groups to the National Day of Prayer court ruling.
- See reactions to the court ruling from various contributors at a special section from The Washington Post‘s “On Faith” blog.
ReligionLink editions and related resources
- See ReligionLink’s guide to church-state experts and resources.
- The Pluralism Project at Harvard University has a good background paper on the history of the National Day of Prayer.
- The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has an analysis of the attitudes and practices of Americans regarding prayer.