Thomas Jefferson said it best. “Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for [prayer and fasting], according to their own particular tenets; and that right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.”
The National Day of Prayer has been an annual tradition since its inception in 1952 after a declaration by President Truman. But after a federal judge’s ruling, that tradition may end this year on the basis of an overly strict interpretation of the First Amendment and a misunderstanding of the day’s purpose.
On April 24, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. Crabb claims it violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, going beyond mere “acknowledgment” of religion by encouraging all citizens to engage in an inherently religious exercise, according to CBS News. Crabb went on to comment no law prevents anyone from praying, and the ruling is not “a criticism of prayer or those who pray.”
One of the groups behind the push to end the observance is the agnostic and atheist Freedom from Religion Foundation, which filed the suit that appeared before the federal judge. The group’s co-president issued a statement in support of the judge’s decision: “It is such a profound violation of conscience for Congress to direct our president to tell all citizens to pray and that they in fact must set aside an entire day for prayer once a year.”
Joel Oster, senior counsel to the Allied Defense fund, spoke out against the ruling.
“The National Day of Prayer provides an opportunity for all Americans to pray voluntarily according to their own faith,” he said. “It does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and this decision should be appealed.”
In the frenzy that ensued, none other than President Obama defended the tradition, saying, “The National Day of Prayer was legal because it simply acknowledged the role of religion in the United States,” according to the Associated Press.
Whatever the outcome of the ruling, President Obama will still recognize a National Day of Prayer on May 6, along with many prominent leaders and politicians across the nation.
And the president is right to do so. Declaring a day of prayer does not infringe on anyone’s right to abstain from doing so. Of course, opponents could say the same thing about outlawing the observance. The right or ability to pray – or not – does not hinge upon an official National Day of Prayer. Americans were praying long before any politician spoke of it, and Americans will continue to pray should the National Day of Prayer become an unofficial observance.
And yet, the custom is an important one. However, its value lies less in the prayer itself and more in the sense of community created as people across the country pause to reflect on whatever God or higher purpose they serve. Prayer is a central feature of many religions, not simply Christianity, and the idea that so many of us can come together over something so pure and simple is something worth preserving.