Government-Sanctioned National Day of Prayer?

May 9, 1998

By Jeffery Jay Lowder

 

[National Day of Prayer Logo] The National Day of Prayer began in 1952 when the U.S. Congress passed a law which required the President to proclaim a day of prayer each year. Under the 1952 law, the President could choose any day he wanted. In 1988, the law was amended and a permanent national day of prayer was established.

To be sure, many people think this observance is a good idea. Borrowing on a theme from Pascal's wager, they argue that there is nothing to be lost by praying. Moreover, they claim that prayer is much more than mere "positive thinking". They argue that prayer can change individuals, families, communities, and even nations for the better. Finally, they claim that the observance is non-sectarian: people are encouraged to the god of their choice. So what's the problem with having a National Day of Prayer?

In a nutshell, the main problem with the National Prayer Day is that it is government-sanctioned religion, which is unconstitutional. By establishing a National Prayer Day through federal law, the government is favoring theism over nontheism, belief over nonbelief. Yet the Constitution -- which does not contain a single reference to "God" -- mandates that the government remain neutral in matters of religion. Specifically, the First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This wording was chosen by the Framers of the Constitution over other versions which would have supported many of the claims of the Radical Religious Right (RRR). For example, one proposed wording of the First Amendment read in part, "Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination in preference to another. ..." This version was rejected by the U.S. House of Representatives, which decivisely proves that the Framers of the Constitution wanted the government to be neutral between belief and nonbelief.

Moreover, just because the government is (or at least is supposed to be) non-religious does not imply that it is anti-religion. If the law establishing a National Day of Prayer were repealed, people would still be able to pray. Indeed, they would be able to pray every day of the year! So why should the National Day of Prayer be sponsored by the government? Does anyone really believe that -- in the absence of a federal law establishing a national day of prayer -- the federal government would instead proclaim a "National Day of Atheistic Chants", in which the government encouraged people to recite excerpts from the writings of Madalyn Murray O'Hair? Can anyone really imagine a stadium overflowing with atheists and agnostics, in celebration of a non-existent "Non-Belief Day"?

Of course not. The simple fact of the matter is that the RRR is afforded the same freedom of religion as everyone else, but that isn't good enough for the RRR. With eternal salvation of people's souls on the line, the RRR will stop at nothing to deliver its message. As one RRR pastor said, "Saving children from a Devil's Hell is more important than any set of government rules!" The upshot is that unless and until their beliefs become the official religion of the United States, the RRR will continue to claim that it is being persecuted.

To be sure, the RRR has the (constitutional) right to hold the beliefs that it does. But the people who disagree with the RRR also have the (constitutional) right to hold their beliefs. As soon as the government begins to favor one religious belief over another, it is not unreasonable to wonder if the government will strip the minority of its freedom of religion altogether. And if any group of people -- whether they are believers or nonbelievers -- loses its right (not) to believe as they please, are any of us truly free?

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