There has been much fallout recently regarding recent rulings by Federal Courts regarding the National Day of Prayer. I recently had a small, but well-meaning debate with a friend regarding this — he is Christian, I am agnostic.
Recently the the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin declared the government’s declaration of a National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. The ruling was handed down by Judge Barbara Brandriff Crabb, nominated by President Jimmy Carter, confirmed by the Senate on October 31, 1979, and commissioned November 2, 1979. The case focused primarily on 36 USC § 119, which states:
The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.
Under this law, the next National Day of Prayer is May 6, 2010.
The law still stands pending the outcome of appeals. The Obama administration has already said that they intend to appeal the decision.
On my Facebook page, I voiced support of the decision:
It’s amazing how many people think the Court answers to public opinion, especially Federal Courts. Personally the National Day of Prayer is basically the government calling on everyone to pray. This is in essence equivalent to a school administrator calling on all students to pray. As the latter has fallen, the former must as well. The Judge in this instance ruled appropriately.
A Facebook group has started as well called "Christians Who Want A National Day Of Prayer!" This is all well and good, but it’s just another example of specific people wanting the government to enact their point of view into public policy without adequate justification of why it should be public policy. The group’s description restates this view:
The National Day of Prayer is currently under attack by radicals determined to silence any expression of faith. Become a fan and together let our voices be heard in Washington that we want a national day of prayer! Suggest to your friends!
If Christians want a national day for prayer, by all means establish one, but don’t go through the government to do it. The Constitution, by way of the First Amendment, states that the government must be religiously neutral:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
If you look up "respect" in the dictionary, you’ll find a couple definitions pertinent to the First Amendment that clearly show that the government must leave religion alone (from Dictionary.com):
10. to show regard or consideration for: to respect someone’s rights.
12. to relate or have reference to.
To have reference to religion or show regard or consideration for it. By these definitions, the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional because it respects an establishment of religion, in particular theistic beliefs. With the National Day of Prayer, the Federal government is not just respecting or favoring one religion, but one class of religions in general: theistic systems of belief. This flies against beliefs that are not theistic, such as atheists and agnostics, and belief systems not centralized on a deity that answers personal prayer.
If you are a theist and you want to pray on May 6th, or on the first Thursday of May thereafter, or on any day, go ahead. No one is stopping you. By declaring the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional, the Court did not say you cannot pray. The ruling merely states that the government cannot suggest that you do.
The National Day of Prayer is not a holiday recognized by any religion, but merely an invention of the Federal government by act of Congress. And under the First Amendment, Congress may not take any action that shows any kind of consideration for religion in any way.
There has been a lot of misunderstanding and exaggeration regarding prayer, when it is permitted and where. Whenever there is a court ruling against religion in some way, such as the 2005 ruling in the case Kitzmiller v. Dover, theists have interpreted it as a restriction on their rights. This is not the case.
We are not a democracy. The United States is not a democracy. The fact that Christians hold a majority religiously in this country does not give them the right to impose their beliefs on everyone, including members of other theistic faiths, through public policy.
We are a Republic. In a Republic, the will of the majority, such as the enactment of a National Day of Prayer, just be tempered against the rights of not just the minority, but the rights of all Americans. Public policy must not show favoritism toward any majority, whether it be a religious majority (Christians) or economic or financial majority (lower and middle class) at the denigration or dereliction of the opposing minority (non-Christians and the upper class, respectfully).
Religion can be one of the most divisive subjects of conversation. To have the government take a stance, any stance, even the slightest, with regard to religion has the power to divide this country worse than our current economic crisis and even slavery. That is why it is by mandate of the Constitution the government not even touch it.