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Freethought Today · Vol. 26 No. 3 April 2009

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF Fights Day of Prayer

The National Day of Prayer is a bad law based on bad history, maintains the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in its reply to the government’s motion to dismiss its federal challenge of presidential proclamations of prayer.

The 1952 statute creating a floating National Day of Prayer was amended in 1988 to take place on the first Thursday of every May.

The law mandates:

“The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a national Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.” The Foundation, in defending its federal lawsuit, has uncovered the history of the law.

The idea originated with the Rev. Billy Graham, who suggested it in the midst of a several-weeks crusade in the nation’s capitol.

A Senate report falsely claims as part of the rationale for the law that prayers were conducted at the Constitutional Convention, which adopted the U.S. Constitution: “When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention encountered difficulties in the writing and formation of a Constitution for this Nation, prayer was suggested and became an established practice at succeeding sessions,” according to the report by the Committee on the Judiciary.

This is untrue. Benjamin Franklin suggested prayer, but in his own notes recorded that the convention, “except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.” His suggestion to pray was met politely but with some embarrassment, scholars note, and delegates quickly adjourned.

Yet more than 10% of the 57 presidential proclamations for a Day of Prayer have repeated the lie that the founders prayed when they adopted the U.S. Constitution. For instance, John F. Kennedy’s 1961 proclamation said: “During the deliberations in the Constitutional Convention they were called to daily prayers.”

Revisionists have mistaken or conflated the Constitutional Convention with the prayerful Continental Congress–which adopted the disastrous and short-lived Articles of Confederation during the Revolutionary War.

The U.S. Attorney General’s Office is seeking dismissal of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s federal challenge of the National Day of Prayer, filed last fall. The challenge, originally naming Pres. George W. Bush and his press secretary, now names Pres. Barack Obama and White House Press Secretary Robert L. Gibbs. The suit, filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and six of its Wisconsin officers or board members, also names Wis. Gov. Jim Doyle over his gubernatorial prayer proclamations.

The FFRF lawsuit additionally names Shirley Dobson, who directs the National Day of Prayer (NDP) Taskforce. She is the wife of James Dobson. The Taskforce is housed at Focus on the Family’s headquarters in Colorado Springs.

FFRF’s lawsuit challenges in part the government’s “hand-in-glove” relationship with the Christian-based NDP Taskforce. The Taskforce prides itself on persuading all 50 governors to issue prayer proclamations, suggests the wording, an annual theme and an annual scripture verse.

In 2008, both Bush and Doyle issued proclamations using themes and scripture suggested by Focus on the Family, as did many other governors.

FFRF has filed a separate lawsuit in Colorado state court against Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., over his troublesome prayer proclamations.

The government defendants trot out historic myths and disinformation to bolster their claim that, “The tradition of a National Day traces its roots to the founding of our Nation.”

Yet only 4% of colonialists were affiliated with a church at the founding of the republic, as the Foundation reply brief notes.

The Foundation maintains that Pres. George Washington’s thanksgiving prayer of 1789, which is repeatedly invoked by the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, is not binding precedent. As constitutional scholar Leo Pfeffer noted in his definitive Church State & Freedom, courts should not be relying on “secondary evidence,” such as legends on coins or presidential proclamations, when they can rely on the “primary evidence” of the Constitution itself–which does not contain any references to a god.

The defendants cite James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, a passionate argument against uniting church and state, but only to use it as an example of an official document referencing a deity.

Similarly, defendants cite Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which maintains no citizen can be compelled to attend, erect or support a ministry, only to note that in the Virginia law Jefferson acknowledged a creator. Yet Jefferson later utterly repudiated the idea of a president directing the religious views of his constituents, and wrote that as president he did not even possess such powers. The defendants’ motion almost jeers at Jefferson as the only president not to proclaim days of thanksgiving. The Foundation points out Jefferson is no minor exception. His famous metaphor defined the very meaning of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as erecting “a wall of separation between church and state.”

The Foundation notes that in fact Pres. Andrew Jackson refused to issue proclamations for prayer, because he too felt that transcended the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the president.

Significantly, Madison, the primary architect of the Constitution, who as president acceded to pressure to issue several such proclamations, notably changed his mind. In Madison’s Detached Memoranda, Madison explicitly condemns “religious proclamations by the Executive recommending Thanksgivings & fasts” as something belonging in a “theocracy.”

The U.S. Attorney General’s office goes so far as to claim that Pres. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is supposed evidence in favor of a day of prayer. The Foundation introduced into evidence a copy of the original handwritten Gettysburg address, which Lincoln read from. Both the original version and Lincoln’s after-speech second draft contain no reference to a nation “under God” at the famous conclusion. (A “commemorative” version of the Gettysburg Address, which Lincoln, an unorthodox deist, sent out and autographed, added the words “under God.”)

In defense of a National Day of Prayer, the Attorney General’s Office further asserts:

“In 1865, Congress authorized the inscription of ‘in God we Trust’ on United States coins.”

The Foundation notes this broad generalization paints an inaccurate picture. U.S. money was entirely god-free until 1862, when “In God We Trust” was placed in a very limited way on a 2-cent piece, then a 1-cent piece, at the direct instigation of a Baptist minister, to “relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism.” The motto was only gradually added to other coins. “In God We Trust” was not adopted as a motto until 1956.

The government claims there is no “broken history” of official acknowledgment of the role of religion in American life. Yet even some of the presidential proclamations, such as Pres. Reagan’s 1983 version, complain that “the National Day of Prayer was forgotten” after the Revolutionary War until the Civil War, and then forgotten again until 1952.

All of the proclamations are dictatorial and ask Americans not only to pray but tell them what to pray for. Only one presidential proclamation even acknowledges that unbelievers exist. That one, by Reagan in 1981, is particularly proselytizing in nature.

Many include biblical references, including some New Testament.