According to recent news outlets, President Obama has chosen to greatly scale back the traditional National Day of Prayer. Despite rumors the President has cancelled the event altogether, he will still sign a proclamation recognizing the day. This is a sharp turn from previous administrations (particularly the Bush years), who have typically held some type of prayer service at the White House.
To provide some background, the National Day of Prayer was established in 1952 by the outgoing President Harry Truman. The famous Rev. Billy Graham had suggested the idea and most politicians favored it, due to their own religious preferences and the fact that this separated Americans from those godless communists in the Soviet Union. President Ronald Reagan started the practice of holding a service in the White House in 1988 and issued the proclamation to recognize the event on the first Thursday of every May.
Though the battle with communism might have helped bring the National Day of Prayer into the spotlight, many presidents in the past have recognized the need for prayer and have asked citizens to ask God for forgiveness and for His blessings on the United States.
This decision will undoubtedly draw the ire of many conservative lawmakers and the religious conservatives they represent. However, Obama's decision might be moot, in light of recent events in the federal courts.
On April 15, 2010, a Wisconsin federal district court judge ruled the National Day of Prayer to be unconstitutional, because it violated the Establishment Clause in the 1st Amendment. The challenge had entered the court system due to former President George W. Bush's desire to conduct prayer services in the White House. Multiple groups had challenged this, believing it to be a violation of the Constitution.
Several atheist groups were excited about the ruling, however many Christian groups were also thrilled to hear about the decision, as they believe the government should have no place in religion.
Judge Barbara Crabb outlined her main thought on the case, stating, "Its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to the indivudal conscience.'
Thus, according to her mindset, creates a clear violation of the 1st Amendment. When I read about this ruling, I admittedly was hasty in believing this to be an error in judgement by the courts. However, after sitting for a few days and letting the material sink in, I have come to the conclusion Judge Crabb was correct in her ruling.
It assessing the case, courts rely heavily on legal precedent with regard to the Establishment Clause in the Constitution, the relevant case here is Lemon v. Kurtzman. As the end result of this case, the Court laid down a three part "Lemon test" for the future to assess wheather or not an action by the government violates the Establishment Clause. The test consists 3 key questions:
1. Does the law or government action have a secular (non-religious) purpose?
2. Does the law or government action advance or inhibit religion?
3. Does the law or government action cause the government to become excessively entangled with religion?
If the issue being addressed fails any one of the three questions, then it fails the tests adn thus, is a violation of the Establishment Clause. When applying the Lemon test to the National Day of Prayer, the results are not difficult to interpret. It does appear to be in violation fo the Establishment Clause.
Furthermore, I understand the plight of those who are unhappy with the decision of the district court or who believe I am wrong. Yet, I implore people to understand that a National Day of Prayer is not an event we should want in the hands of our government. If we as Christians (or any religion) want to undertake such an event, what stops us? The answer: nothing. The other aspect of our freedom of religion is the Free Exercise Clause, which allows us to worship God as we see fit.
Imagine having a government run / backed religion. The government would control all aspects of the church, including telling congregation members what songs they should sing or how they should pray.
My observation with society is that American Christians keep pawning off our repsonsibilities onto the government. Christians need to teach others about the value of prayer and how faith in Jesus is a life altering event. Start a facebook group, spread the word to local churches, pray in the middle of a public area ... do whatever is necessary to show public prayer is still available. First Thursday in May ... make sure you observe National Day of Prayer. Then again, observe prayer every day.