Apr 27, 1999

The annual National Day of Prayer has been hijacked by Religious Right organizations that are using it to promote their religious political agenda, charges Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The National Day of Prayer is a congressionally mandated observance that occurs on the first Thursday of each May (May 6 this year). Established by Congress as an annual event in 1952, the date was set in 1988 as the first Thursday in May.

Congress intended the prayer day as an interfaith "civil religion" occasion. But Americans United charges that events surrounding the day have become increasingly dominated by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a fundamentalist Christian group affiliated with religious broadcaster James Dobson and other Religious Right leaders.

Task Force materials distributed this year exclude Mormons, Muslims and other minority faiths, distort Supreme Court decisions and give a false impression of U.S. history said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn.

"The National Day of Prayer has become yet another platform for the Religious Right to advance its 'Christian nation' agenda and make minority religions feel like second-class citizens," said Lynn.

Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister, charged that the National Day of Prayer Task Force's materials reveal their narrow sectarian approach and extreme politics. "They're using the National Day of Prayer to promote bad history, bad law and bad interfaith relations," he said.

Lynn cited several examples:

* Fundamentalist Christians Only: Lynn noted that Task Force materials tell local organizers that they need not allow religions outside of the "Judeo-Christian" tradition to participate. "People of other faith," the NDP says, can set up their own events.

Elsewhere, the materials say every NDP volunteer "must be a Christian who has a personal relationship with Christ." They recommend that during public events the only church leaders who believe in "salvation by grace alone" and who "have a personal relationship with Christ" get access "to the microphone."

The materials also include a sample letter for inviting religious leaders to events but adds, "[W]e are looking forward to assembling the BODY OF CHRIST so we are covered as to why we haven't invited Mormons, Muslims, etc. It is a big chore to get all of the Christians together and our goal is just that."

* Inaccurate portrayals of American history: Lynn asserted that the Task Force materials give a false history of the development of church-state separation in the United States. In one case, he noted, an alleged quotation by James Madison lauding the Ten Commandments is cited, even though the quotation has been debunked by scholars.

Elsewhere, Lynn charged, U.S. Supreme Court decisions upholding of church-state separation are distorted to make them appear to say the opposite. Task Force materials contain a "quote" from the high court's 1963 Abington Township School District v. Schempp decision that is completely fabricated.

* Inflammatory rhetoric: The task force materials contain a sample "Prayer For Our Beloved Country" that it recommends be read aloud during public events. The prayer contains the line, "We pray that the citizens of our country will elect leaders whose consciences will not be available to the highest bidder, who will not seek to curry the favor of a Godless media, Godless lobbyists, Godless power mongers."

* Links to the Religious Right: The NDP Task Force is chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of James C. Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, and operates out of FOF's headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. The materials recommend that event organizers who want to get a National Day of Prayer resolution passed in their states "seek the assistance of pro-family Christian groups (i.e., Family Policy Council, Concerned Women for America, Eagle Forum, Christian Coalition, etc.) in your state...."

The section on the religious rights of students in public schools comes from John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, a Religious Right legal group. Organizers are also referred to the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal group founded by TV preacher Pat Robertson and the Alliance Defense Fund, a similar group.

"It's important for Americans to remember," said AU's Lynn, "that two of our key framers - Thomas Jefferson and James Madison - opposed government issuing religious proclamations. We need to get back to that spirit today and shut down this increasingly offensive coupling of government and religion."

Although Madison issued a "prayer day" proclamation while President under political pressure from Congress, he later said such proclamations are inappropriate. "They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion," Madison wrote in a document referred to as the "Detached Memoranda."

Jefferson made a similar argument, writing to the Rev. Samuel Miller in 1808, "Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it."