“We have lost many of our freedoms in America because we have been asleep,” says Mrs. Shirley Dobson, chairman of the National Day of Prayer 2011. “I feel if we do not become involved and support the annual National Day of Prayer, we could end up forfeiting this freedom, too.”
Like Thanksgiving or Christmas, the day has become a national observance annually across the nation.
Last year, local, state and federal observances were held from sunrise in Maine to sunset in Hawaii, uniting Americans from all economic, political and ethnic backgrounds in prayer for our nation. It is estimated that over two million people attended more than 30,000 observances organized by approximately 40,000 volunteers. At state capitols, county court houses, on the steps of city halls, and in schools, businesses, churches and homes, people stopped their activities and gathered for prayer.
The first National Day of Prayer was declared in 1775 before America was even a nation. The Continental Congress asked the colonies to pray for wisdom in forming a nation.
Similar calls to prayer have resounded throughout our history, including President Lincoln’s proclamation of a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in 1863 and George W. Bush’s appeal to all Americans to pray for America shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
A national day was informal for years until 1952. A joint resolution was approved by Congress, then signed by President Harry S. Truman, which declared an annual, national day of prayer.
In 1988, the law was amended and signed by President Reagan, permanently setting the day as the first Thursday of every May. Each year, the president signs a proclamation, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day.
Last year, all 50 state governors plus the governors of several U.S. territories signed similar proclamations – defying a federal judge who had declared the event illegal. That ruling has since been overturned.
“Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline,” said Thomas Jefferson in 1808. “Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises.”
“The National Day of Prayer has great significance for us as a nation,” notes Mrs. Dobson. “It enables us to recall and to teach the way in which our founding fathers sought the wisdom of God when faced with critical decisions. It stands as a call to us to humbly come before God, seeking His guidance for our leaders and His grace upon us as a people.”
Is it true that President Obama refused to sign this year’s presidential declaration of the National Day of Prayer? Such rumors have made the rounds on the Internet. Obama has scaled down the White House observance, however, on April 29, two weeks after the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the National Day of Prayer, Obama proclaimed May 5 as the date for Americans to come together in a unified time of prayer for the nation.
“Prayer has played an important role in the American story and in shaping our Nation’s leaders,” noted the President in his proclamation, recalling the words of his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, who noted during the War Between the States that he had been driven “many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”
Obama recalled that “from the earliest years of our country’s history, Congress and Presidents have set aside days to recognize the role prayer has played in so many definitive moments in our history.”
He appealed to the American people to use this year’s observance in expressing their thankfulness to God “for the liberty that allows people of all faiths to worship or not worship according to the dictates of their conscience,” and for the “many other freedoms and blessings that we often take for granted.”
Noting the conflicts that have placed America’s military forces in harm’s way around the world, Obama asked the nation to “pray for the men and women of our Armed Forces and the many selfless sacrifices they and their families make on behalf of our Nation.” In addition, he counseled prayer “for the sustenance and guidance for all of us to meet the great challenges we face as a Nation.”
Observing the “uncertainty and unrest” that plague people all over the word, the President advised concerted prayer for “men and women everywhere who seek peace, human dignity, and the same rights we treasure here in America.”
Obama concluded his official proclamation by inviting “all citizens of our Nation, as their own faith or conscience directs them, to join me in giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy [and] in asking God for guidance, mercy, and protection for our Nation.”
That there would even be a proclamation from the President this year was in doubt until April 14, when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that the national observance was a violation of the First Amendment’s supposed separation of church and state.
The circuit court decision trumped the April 2010 verdict of U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, who had ruled that the National Day of Prayer amounted to an unconstitutional call for religious action on the part of the government. It should be noted that President Obama himself appealed that decision.
A three-member panel of the circuit court determined that a presidential prayer proclamation imposes no requirement on anyone other than the President to do anything — and that he was not a complainant in the lawsuit. The court rules no one is injured by what amounts to an invitation. Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote in the unanimous ruling: “The Judicial Branch does not censor a President’s speech. Those who do not agree with a President’s statement may speak in opposition to it; they are not entitled to silence the speech of which they disapprove.”
While the President was applauded for his prayer proclamation, just days earlier he had received severe criticism for not issuing a traditional presidential Easter proclamation, while he did release a statement in honor of Earth Day, observed this year on the Saturday before Easter.