The annual ritual known as the National Day of Prayer is scheduled for Thursday, May 4, and already there are indications that some of the activities may come close to violating the separation of church and state.
Headed by a Task Force operating out of the Focus on the Family headquarters in Colorado Springs, Co., the National Day of Prayer is chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus founder and family values guru, James Dobson.
|Many argue that elected officials have no business issuing proclamations which endorse the event.|
"Our hope for America as we press into the new millennium is rooted in reverence for God and our dependence on His continued blessing and guidance," Ms. Dobson said in a press statement announcing this year's NDOP. "That expression of faith inspired our founding fathers at the birth of this nation, and it will be our strength in the days ahead."
National Day of Prayer organizers say that the event dates back to 1775, when the Continental Congress "designated a time for prayer in forming a new nation." The real origins, though, lay in the cold war period when the struggle against "Godless Communism" was draped in the mantle of a religious crusade. The Supreme Court, starting with the 1948 McCollum decision handed down a series of decisive rulings affirming the separation of church and state. Belief in God became a litmus test for patriotism, and Congress responded to the hysteria by passing a slew of legislative items, including a 1952 joint declaration which called for an annual prayer event. President Eisenhower followed the tradition, and inaugurated official prayer breakfasts in the White House.
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."
"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.
Are the NDOP events constitutional?
Americans are guaranteed freedom of assembly, which includes activities or celebrations of a religious nature. Separationists, though, say that the National Day of Prayer should not be funded by public monies, and many argue that elected officials have no business issuing proclamations which endorse the event. Courts remain divided and vague about the former practice.
NDOP is more than just a private religious event, too. The political overtones became obvious last year when Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura became the first national leader to refuse an endorsement of the Day of Prayer activity.
"I believe in the separation of church and state," Ventura declared. "We all have our religious beliefs. There are people out there who are atheists, who don't believe at all. They are all citizens of Minnesota and I have to respect that."
This year's Day of Prayer activities may go the extra mile, though, in violating the separation of church and state. The National Day of Prayer Task Force and other groups supporting the May 4 activity are making a special effort to encourage prayer at school flagpoles, along with the usual battery of prayer breakfasts, Bible reading marathons, prayer rallies and other activities. Students are being encouraged to wear special "P.R.A.Y. Bracelets" (Praise, Repent, Ask, Yield). Separationists need to make sure that teachers, administrators and other public school officials do not endorse the National Day of Prayer event, or penalize students who choose not to participate.
"They've already tried to turn the city hall into a church," declares Ellen Johnson. "Now, they are using the National Day of Prayer to brainwash youngsters and encourage religious conformity in the public schools."