The Flagrant Unconstitutionality of the National Day of Prayer

Today, on May 5th, the American president is required by law to sign a proclamation each year urging all Americans to pray. The law was enacted in 1952, and represents one of the most egregious violations of America’s constitutional order. It was unsuccessfully challenged in court, but its unconstitutionality needs to be regularly reiterated.

The full law itself is short. It reads:

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.

36 U.S.C. § 119

President Biden’s 2022 proclamation on the National Day of Prayer can be found at this link.

The National Day of Prayer was established in 1952 at the direct behest of evangelical Reverend Billy Graham, who said: “What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be to see the leaders of our country today kneeling before Almighty God in prayer.”

The National Day of Prayer is partially based on a Christian revisionist myth that that the Founders prayed during the Constitutional Convention, when they created our secular republic. They most certainly did no such thing.

To those not aware, this next bit will sound like satire, but since 1989 there has been a “National Day of Prayer Task Force” (formerly based in the HQ of fundamentalist evangelical organization Focus on the Family), which has composed the draft proclamations, including Bible verses, and has urged the president and local governmental officials to promote the proclamation.

I mentioned that the law was unsuccessfully challenged in court. In fact, it was ruled unconstitutional on April 15, 2010 by Judge Barbara Crabb – but then, president Obama appealed the ruling to the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned Judge Crabb’s decision. The National Day of Prayer still stands.

The National Day of Prayer clearly has a Christian bias, since it explicitly says “churches” and not “mosques”, “synagogues”, etc. It stands in clear contradiction to the Establishment Clause, which reads (with the full amendment included):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

U.S. Constitution, 1st Amendment

Prayer is an explicitly religious activity, and so a National Day of Prayer establishes religion into the government in a way prohibited by the Constitution. As mentioned, the National Day of Prayer is Christian in every way. The president who proclaimed was a Christian, the Reverend who urged it was a Christian, the “task force” is explicitly Christian, and the language of “churches” is Christian-only. Thus it establishes a particular religion over any other.

The National Day of Prayer is a serious affront to any future president who may be nonreligious or even an open atheist. It would demand that nonreligious presidents proclaim to the citizenry that they should pray. It would even demand that a Jewish president would tell the citizenry to pray in “churches.”

The National Day of Prayer is an affront to the citizenry by pressuring them to pray to the Christian god. It is true that it makes no requirement upon the citizenry, but its very existence implies that it is what an American citizen ought to do, and that prayer is an inherently patriotic action.

I have no objection whatsoever to a president praying, nor to the citizens praying; I respect that right completely. But when a president is required by U.S. law to urge citizens, including those of any or no religion, to pray – that is where I take great offense, and why I consider this one of the most flagrant violations of our constitutional order today.

Atheists and humanists established the Day of Reason on the first Thursday of May, to peacefully combat the National Day of Prayer. A happy Day of Reason to you all. Let’s continue working against the violations of the church-state separation.

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