Does a National Day of Prayer Violate the Constitution?
The American Atheists organization thinks so, especially with this year's emphasis on prayer at schools
In 1985, President Reagan succeeded in amending the 33-year-old statute and officially declared that a National Day of Prayer would be celebrated on the first Thursday of May each and every year. Since then, the President of the United States, state governors, mayors and other elected officials have issued official proclamations in support of the event. NDOP activities often include religious revival meetings in or in front of city halls and state houses, prayer breakfasts, and other public demonstrations of religiosity.
Freedom of religion or breaching the wall?
Despite its public emphasis on prayer and religiosity, critics say that the National Day of Prayer often violates the separation of church and state when it solicits endorsements from government officials, or uses public funds or resources for its events.
"There are plenty of potential constitutional problems here," says Chris Allen, Utah State Co-Director for American Atheists. "It's not the proper role of public officials to be using their positions to endorse or advertise events like the National Day of Prayer, and it's certainly unethical for them to be pandering to religious groups."
Allen warns that under the First Amendment, government -- and elected officials -- should remain neutral when it comes to activities like the Day of Prayer, March for Jesus or similar events.
"Many of these activities focus on the city hall or the state capitol building. Public officials should avoid involvement with these religious groups and show their respect for everyone's beliefs and nonbelief by keeping their positions neutral."
Allen encourages Atheists to speak out against such constitutional violations, and emphasize the principle of church-state separation.
"There are 350,000 mosques and temples and churches in this country, and the groups behind National Day of Prayer still aren't satisfied," declares Ellen Johnson, President of American Atheists.
"It's all about being seen praying in public," said Johnson. "Even the gospel of St. Matthew says that Christians should go into a closet and shut the door when they pray. Shirley Dobson and the other organizers of National Day of Prayer should read their own Bible."
Johnson called upon atheists to monitor their local and state NDOP events, and urged public officials to refrain from issuing proclamations or edicts encouraging the populace to join in.