This year our National Day of Prayer is particularly well timed, since it will dawn four days after a heroic team of Navy SEALs rid the world of master terrorist Osama bin Laden. As it turns out, the White House issued President Obama’s official proclamation only hours before he set in motion that successful mission. The president’s written words now ring with poignancy:
Let us be thankful for the liberty that allows people of all faiths to worship or not worship according to the dictates of their conscience, and let us be thankful for the many other freedoms and blessings that we often take for granted.
Let us pray for the men and women of our armed forces and the many selfless sacrifices they and their families make on behalf of our nation. Let us pray for the police officers, firefighters and other first responders who put themselves in harm’s way every day to protect their fellow citizens. And let us ask God for the sustenance and guidance for all of us to meet the great challenges we face as a nation.
Yet if opponents of the National Day of Prayer had had their way in court, President Obama would have been enjoined from urging his fellow Americans to take time to “ask God for sustenance and guidance.”
Few topics spur more court battles than the separation of church and state. Thankfully, though, a federal appeals panel in Illinois has made it harder for the most spurious of these lawsuits to proceed. The case against the National Day of Prayer, which dates to an act of Congress unanimously adopted in 1952, arose in Wisconsin. A group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed suit against the United States seeking to block presidential proclamations marking the day, as have been issued for the past 59 years. A presidential call to prayer crosses the line, the suit claimed, and amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the national government.
Around this time last April, a federal district judge in Wisconsin agreed. The judge barred President Obama, who had issued National Day of Prayer proclamations in 2009 and 2010, from doing so this year. The court stayed its order, pending the administration’s appeal.
On April 14, a three-judge federal appeals panel in Chicago overturned the lower court, clearing the way for the president to issue a third proclamation — which he did this past Friday:
I invite all citizens of our nation, as their own faith or conscience directs them, to join me in giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy, and I ask all people of faith to join me in asking God for guidance, mercy, and protection for our nation. …
Let us remember in our thoughts and prayers those who have been affected by natural disasters at home and abroad in recent months, as well as those working tirelessly to render assistance. And, at a time when many around the world face uncertainty and unrest, but also hold resurgent hope for freedom and justice, let our prayers be with men and women everywhere who seek peace, human dignity and the same rights we treasure here in America.
Oddly enough, for an issue that involves kneeling and bowing, the appeals court’s ruling turned on standing — legal standing.
Writing for the court, Judge Frank Easterbrook said the suit must be dismissed because the Freedom from Religion Foundation could not show an injury resulting from a presidential act exhorting citizens to pray as they see fit.
The proclamation isn’t a command, Judge Easterbrook noted, “any more than a person would be obliged to hand over his money if the president asked all citizens to support the Red Cross or other charities.” (For the record, U.S. presidents have declared Red Cross Month every year since President Franklin Roosevelt inaugurated the practice in 1943.) National invocations to prayer date back to the Continental Congress, which issued such a declaration in 1775. President Washington followed with his well-known call to national thanksgiving and prayer in 1795.
Although it was not necessary to address standing, Judge Easterbrook pointed out the implications of accepting the plaintiffs’ arguments about “hurt feelings” when the president asks willing Americans to pray. Citing Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which mentions God seven times and prayer three more, Easterbrook wrote: “The address is chiseled in stone at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. An argument that the prominence of these words injures every citizen, and that the judicial branch could order them to be blotted out, would be dismissed as preposterous.”
It’s hard to imagine a president going further out of his way than Obama has done to underscore that the National Day of Prayer not only is voluntary but all-inclusive.
“I call upon the citizens of our nation to pray, or otherwise give thanks,” Obama wrote last year, “in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings.”
The same spirit was evident in the proclamation issued in 1988 by President Reagan, the first after Congress revised the 1952 law to fix the date of observance as the first Thursday in May.
“I call upon the citizens of our great nation to gather together on that day in homes and places of worship to pray,” Reagan wrote, “each after his or her own manner, for unity in the hearts of all mankind.”
Or otherwise give thanks.
Each after his or her own manner.
Time and again, presidents remind us of both the importance of our heritage of religious liberty and the value of religion itself. They have recognized and encouraged the nation, in times of war and peace, of feast and famine, to treasure not freedom from religion but freedom of and for religion.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation promises to press its case, in Illinois and elsewhere. It appears, however, that the National Day of Prayer will go forward today without judicial interference. The Lincoln Memorial will not be remodeled.
For this, as well as for what President Obama called “the many selfless sacrifices” of our military, first responders and their families, millions of Americans will — through prayer and otherwise — give thanks.
— Charles A. Donovan is senior research fellow in the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation. He assisted in preparing proclamations for President Reagan from 1981 to 1989.