May 09, 2011

Every year around the National Day of Prayer (NDP) – which occurred last Thursday – Americans United gets really busy.

Media outlets and various interest groups want to hear our take on the government-mandated day to pray, which started in 1952 when Congress passed a federal statute ordering the president to declare a prayer day each year. (In 1998, the NDP was codified as the first Thursday of every May.)

Americans United opposes the NDP, not because we are against prayer, but because we do not believe government officials should be asking us to participate in an inherently religious exercise.

On Thursday, CNN quoted Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, summing up AU’s stance.

When Congress in the 1950s decided to create a day for one kind of religious expression, said Lynn, it was improperly interfering with religion, which ought to be a personal matter.

“Many of us are frankly insulted that Congress thinks it needs to tell us what day to be particularly prayerful," Lynn observed.

I said something similar on Thursday while speaking at the Minnesota Atheists’ “Day of Reason” event in the Minnesota State Capitol. I traveled to the Twin Cities to speak inside the rotunda while NDP events were going on outside.

My job was to talk about church-state separation and remind legislators and others that this country is made up of people from more than 2,000 different religious groups as well as those who follow no religious path at all. When government officials participate in the National Day of Prayer – which really only represents one faith tradition – they are turning their backs on their constituents who believe otherwise.

I told the 50-some people sitting in the rotunda that the NDP does not stem from our Founding Fathers’ vision. Thanks to heavy lobbying from Religious Right groups, the day has now been hijacked as another way to undercut church-state separation and promote “Christian nation” propaganda.

In state and local governmental buildings across the country, the National Day of Prayer Task Force organizes events where only Christians are welcome. The group, a private organization founded by Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson, requires that its volunteers sign an evangelical statement of faith and makes sure that no non-Christian speakers step to the podium.

It hardly seems acceptable that our government officials continue to support the NDP, knowing that they are not only favoring one religious group, but that they are endorsing religion over non-religion.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison opposed prayer proclamations. Jefferson would never issue them, stating that prayer is a religious exercise and should be left up to each individual. Madison, father of our Constitution, issued a few prayer proclamations during the War of 1812, but later wrote that he regretted it.

Americans United’s staff members are often called upon by different groups to talk about church-state separation and why it is good for both religion and government. Whether we are addressing a religious group or an atheist group, our message is the same: the Constitution prevents government from meddling in religious affairs and from religion creeping into our laws.

Standing up against government endorsements of religion is a cause that all Americans ought to share, regardless of where they stand on religion.