Thursday is the National Day of Prayer, and if you want to pray, by all means have at it.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: You can pray (or not) as dictated by your very own conscience. You don’t need any branch of the government to tell you what to do when it comes to religion.

At Americans United, we find the National Day of Prayer offensive for a number of reasons. In the first place, it violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Congress passed a federal law requiring the president to acknowledge the day. Most governors follow suit, thus giving Americans the false notion that elected officials have some sort of official role in religious matters.

In the second place, the NDP has been all but taken over by extreme Religious Right groups that use it to promote bad history, attack church-state separation and distort court rulings in this area.

The National Day of Prayer Task Force, a nonprofit that runs most of the NDP events, is headed by Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. Religious Right groups have more or less hijacked the NDP and use it to promote their controversial political agenda.

As I told the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise in a story that ran over the weekend, “Our belief is it’s not the job of government to call people to prayer. That’s the job of the clergy. We’re not a theocracy. We’re a secular republic that allows all religions and endorses none. The people who run the National Day of Prayer don’t understand that.”

As the Press-Enterprise noted, a local pastor, Greg Laurie, is serving as the honorary chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force. In an interview with the newspaper, he pined for the days when public schools had official school prayer and the Ten Commandments were posted in classrooms.

Laurie told the newspaper that he intends to lead an NDP prayer that says, “We see trouble in our culture today. We see the breakdown of family, crippling addictions, and random acts of horrific violence. Lord, we need your help in America. In recent days, we have done our best to remove your word and your counsel from our courtrooms, classrooms and culture.”

Not quite. American culture remains quite religious – by choice. What we have done is remove coercive forms of prayer from public schools and stopped the display of religious symbols in places where they don’t belong, such as our courts (which must dispense justice for all, not just those of the “correct” faith).

Besides, Laurie and those who think like him aren’t really fans of school prayer or display of religious symbols by government. They’re fans of their prayers in school and their symbols being displayed. If the prayer being recited every day or the symbols posted in city hall were Islamic – or even liberal Christian – they would howl in protest.

Finally, the NDP has become exclusionary. The Religious Right groups that promote the day sometimes talk about it promoting the “Judeo-Christian” values that the nation was supposedly built upon. The “Judeo” part is just lip service, and the “Christian” part reflects a narrow segment of America’s Christian community – right-wing fundamentalism.

In previous years, the NDP Task Force has advised the people holding local events that it’s OK to invite non-fundamentalists but not to let them speak. Take a look at this faith statement from the NDP’s website, which reflects standard fundamentalism. My guess is that if you indicate disagreement with it, your volunteer options will be very limited.

There is a little bit of good news here: During the presidency of George W. Bush, the White House usually held a big public NDP event and invited Religious Right leaders. It was Bush’s way of letting the Religious Right know that he appreciated the movement’s support. President Barack Obama ended that practice. Obama will sign a proclamation (remember, by law he has to), but it’s unlikely that any far-right radio and TV preachers will be lurking at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Thursday.

 Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison knew why official prayer proclamations were a bad idea. Check out their wisdom here.