FFRF: Why we are so over that unconstitutional ‘Day of Prayer’

National Day of Reason

It is an unconstitutional affront that the first Thursday of every May is designated by Congress as the “National Day of Prayer.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which took the lead in challenging this unconstitutional act, won a historic federal court ruling declaring that act of Congress unconstitutional in 2010 — a legal shot heard ‘round the country, if not the world. In her sublime 60-page ruling, which is worth savoring, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb wrote:

“. . . recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue, purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic.” She added, “In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience.”

FFRF’s intrepid lawsuit uncovered the history of this federal statute, which requires the U.S. president to issue an annual proclamation calling on citizens to “turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.” The annual National Day of Prayer was passed by Congress in 1952 at the direct behest of the evangelical Rev. Billy Graham, for the purpose of bringing “the Lord Jesus Christ” to the nation. He opined, “What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be to see the leaders of our country today kneeling before Almighty God in prayer.”

FFRF’s lawsuit exposed the fact that the statute was based on bad history, with the sponsor justifying the statute with a falsehood: that the Founders prayed — which they certainly did not — during the Constitutional Convention where they created our godless Constitution.

Since 1989, the National Day of Prayer Task Force, formerly housed in the fundamentalist Christian Focus on the Family’s headquarters, has composed draft proclamations with a yearly theme and scripture verse and pressured not only the president, but all governors and many county and city executives, to promote their proclamation. Our lawsuit showed how the government has worked hand in glove with this Christian evangelical movement to issue prayer proclamations and bless exclusionary prayer rallies.

Our great victory unfortunately did not last, after President Obama appealed the decision to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The case was thrown out on technical standing, but not on the merits. Even in 2011, the reshaping of the federal judiciary by ultraconservative presidents had taken its toll.

So it is more than gratifying that the co-chairs of the Congressional Freethought Caucus — with its 15 members of Congress dedicated to the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to upholding the rights of freethinkers — are sponsoring a resolution to name tomorrow as the National Day of Reason.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation thanks the congressional sponsors of the “National Day of Reason” — introduced by Rep. Jamie Raskin and co-sponsored by Reps. Jared Huffman, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Jerry McNerney, Mark Pocan, Pramila Jayapal, and Hank Johnson.

Finally, here’s a resolution the members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation can get behind. In the future, we intend to build on the Day of Reason to encourage the president, governors and other elected officials to pass resolutions honoring the Day of Reason.

Also to counteract the Day of Prayer, we encourage you to participate in an event that involves good action, not useless prayer, the Mayday for Humanity, a three-hour extravaganza tonight with comedians, musicians and freethinking celebrities raising funds to counter homelessness and hunger. Register now because, as freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll famously noted, “Hands that help are better far than lips that pray.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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