Tomorrow is the National Day of Prayer (NDP), an event codified by a U.S. law dating to 1952 that requires the president to issue a proclamation recognizing it.
Americans United has a lot of problems with the NDP. As a privately sponsored event, it would be fine, but state and local governments often mark the NDP with laudatory proclamations calling on citizens to pray and engage in acts of worship. It’s simply not the place of our secular government to direct its citizens on when, how or whether to pray. Government has no business even offering us advice on how to behave when it comes to religion.
But this year’s event, although it will still promote an unhealthy mixing of religion and state, is likely to be different in one key way: The president probably won’t use it to unveil a terrible policy.
That’s exactly what President Donald Trump did to mark the NDP for three out of four years. In fact, one of Trump’s worse initiatives on church-state relations was announced during the 2017 National Day of Prayer. This order, allegedly promoting “religious freedom,” was in reality nothing more than a sop to Christian nationalists.
Trump falsely claimed his order would overturn a federal law known as the Johnson Amendment and allow houses of worship to intervene in partisan politics – something he didn’t have the power to do. But even though it was mostly verbiage, the order ended up sowing a lot of confusion. A second portion of the order was also problematic: It attacked women’s access to birth control, allowing religious beliefs to be cited as a reason for taking away this vital form of health care.
During the 2018 NDP ceremony at the White House, Trump struck again. This time he announced plans to change regulations that were put in place to protect people who use government-funded social service programs that were being handled by religious organizations. The old rules said that people who are uncomfortable with the religious character of a faith-based provider have the right to access an alternative provider. Trump’s order was the first step in stripping away that protection. It also mandated the creation of “Faith and Opportunity” offices in every federal agency and department. These offices were ordered to enforce a U.S. Justice Department guidance that furthered religion-based discrimination in taxpayer-funded programs.
The 2019 NDP ceremony was another disaster. Trump announced a rule inviting health care workers to cite their religious beliefs to deny care to patients. He also said his administration would take steps to ensure that faith-based adoption and foster care agencies that receive taxpayer funding can turn away any prospective parents who fail to meet their religious test. (Both measures were challenged in court by Americans United and its allies, and the health-care rule was quickly invalidated.)
2020’s NDP was more subdued. With the coronavirus pandemic raging, Trump held an outdoor ceremony featuring prayer and music, but he refrained from announcing any new initiatives.
What will happen tomorrow? We don’t know, but we can make a safe guess that President Joe Biden won’t urge houses of worship to run amok in partisan politics, and he won’t hand down a regressive order that targets women or members of the LGBTQ community. He won’t likely unveil an executive order furthering religion-based discrimination.
Biden has been busy overturning Trump-era policies, including some of the orders Trump announced during National Day of Prayer events. There’s more to be done. As we noted last week, AU and 76 other religious, civil rights, labor, health, secular and women’s organizations have written to Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, recommending three steps Biden should take to further repair the damage done by Trump.
So, while we’re still not fans of a government-backed National Day of Prayer, we’re taking heart that this year’s event is likely to be much less horrifying than the ones we’ve seen since 2017. That’s cause for celebration or even a little private prayer of thanks – but only if you’re so inclined, of course.