The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Joe Conn, Rob Boston or Sandhya Bathija

Congress-Mandated Prayer Day Undercuts Religious Liberty, Says Americans United

Church-State Watchdog Organization Says Individuals, Not Government, Should Make Decisions About Worship


Tomorrow's government-proclaimed day of prayer is impossible to square with the constitutional separation of church and state, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

"Americans don't need a federal government directive to tell them when, whether and how to pray," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "There are many things that government does well, but managing Americans' religious lives isn't one of them."

The National Day of Prayer (NDP) was created by Congress in 1952. The federal law requires the president to issue a proclamation calling on people to pray. Originally a floating observance, the NDP was mandated as the first Thursday in May by Congress in 1988 at the request of Religious Right groups.

Although a federal appeals court recently dismissed a challenge to the National Day of Prayer on technical grounds, the annual government-sanctioned religious observance remains problematic, says Americans United.

In addition, Americans United says Religious Right groups are increasingly using the NDP to promote their troubling religious-political agenda.

Most NDP observances around the country are sponsored by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private group in Colorado led by Shirley Dobson, wife of Religious Right broadcaster James Dobson. AU asserts that under Dobson's leadership, the NDP has become a vehicle for the Religious Right's assault on public schools, religious diversity and church-state separation.

For example, a guide for schools promoted by the NDP Task Force attacks the Supreme Court for removing mandatory prayer from public schools in 1962 and suggests that an array of social problems springs from the high court decision.

Says the Dobson group, "Since then, our nation has experienced a diminished reverence for the Almighty, as well as an erosion in many areas of American life. Not only are we seeing a decline in our schools' environment and academics, but student performance and conduct has also taken a turn for the worse. Meanwhile, the disintegration of family life is giving rise to societal crises such as teenage pregnancy and violent crime."

The guide also asserts that "The phrase 'separation of Church and State' does not appear anywhere in the Constitution of the United States of America" and asserts that public schools may sponsor prayer events "before or after school hours" - a legally dubious assertion.

National Day of Prayer Task Force materials also make it clear that events should be limited to groups that represent "a Judeo Christian expression of the national observance, based on our understanding that this country was birthed in prayer and in reverence for the God of the Bible." People seeking to host events must sign a Statement of Belief that reflects fundamentalist Christian tenets.

"The National Day of Prayer has become a government-provided platform for Religious Right groups to promote bad history, bad law and exclusionary theology," said Lynn. "Government at all levels should stop endorsing this misguided agenda."

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.