Quick Note: Whose National Day of Prayer?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 17, 2010 — 18 Comments

While the Obama administration has considerably toned down White House observances of the yearly National Day of Prayer, a day that many claim had been hijacked by conservative Christian organizations during the previous administration, several groups have been asking if it’s even legal for our government (built on a principle of separation between church and state) to have a mandated day on which to call citizens to prayer. Especially when that call to prayer has been arguably couched in a predominantly Christian context within our multi-religious society. Well now a Wisconsin US District court judge, in a case brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has just ruled that the law authorizing the day was unconstitutional.

“US District Judge Barbara Crabb said the federal statute violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on government endorsement of religion. She issued a 66-page decision and enjoined President Obama from issuing an executive order calling for the celebration of a National Day of Prayer. The National Day of Prayer was first authorized by Congress in 1952. Since 1988, the date has been set as the first Thursday in May. The judge stayed her own injunction pending the resolution of any appeals. “I understand that many may disagree with [my] conclusion and some may even view it as critical of prayer or those who pray. That is unfortunate,” Judge Crabb wrote.”

Of special interest to my audience concerning Judge Crabb’s 66-page decision is the following passage:

“Recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean 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.”

Right there, Crabb acknowledges the reality and existence of pre-Christian, indigenous, and non-monotheistic faiths in this country. That having a US state-sanctioned “prayer day” isn’t some sort of secular ceremonial deist tradition (in fact, both Jefferson and Madison thought such proclamations were unconstitutional), but instead invokes the praxis of primarily Abrahamic faith traditions.

Naturally this won’t stop the White House from issuing a proclamation this year, and several organizations are already lining up to challenge this decision (while vilifying Judge Crabb). Even some supporters hold out little hope of this decision surviving the appeals process. But that shouldn’t diminish the importance of Crabb’s tacit acknowledgment that the National Day of Prayer has long outlived the cold-war cultural/religious alignment that enshrined it into law, and that the curtain of ceremonial deism will no longer hide the Christian pulling the levers.

More responses to this decision: Interfaith Alliance, Americans United, American Humanist Association, and  Lynn v. Sekulow.

Jason Pitzl-Waters