National Day of Prayer

National Day of Prayer
National Day of Prayer
National Day of Prayer
Observed by The United States of America
Date First Thursday in May
2010 date May 6
2011 date May 5
2012 date May 3
Related to Day of Prayer, National Day of Reason

The National Day of Prayer (36 U.S.C. § 119)[1] is an annual day of observance held on the first Thursday of May, designated by the United States Congress, when people are asked "to turn to God in prayer and meditation". Each year, the president signs a proclamation, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day.[2] The modern law formalizing its annual observance was enacted in 1952, although it has historical origins to a mandate by George Washington, the first president of the United States.[3][4][5]

Its constitutionality is being challenged in court by the Freedom From Religion Foundation after their first challenge was unanimously dismissed by a federal appellate court in April 2011.[6][7][8]



There had been at least two individual (i.e. single-day) national days of prayer in U.S. history before the day was made an official annual day of observance in 1952. Prior to the nation's founding, the Continental Congress issued a proclamation recommending "a day of publick [sic] humiliation, fasting, and prayer" be observed on July 20, 1775":[9]

The Honorable the Congress having recommended it to the United States to set apart Thursday the 6th of May next to be observed as a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer, to acknowledge the gracious interpositions of Providence; to deprecate [to pray or intreat that a present evil may be removed] deserved punishment for our Sins and Ingratitiude, to unitedly implore the Protection of Heaven; Success to our Arms and the Arms of our Ally: The Commander in Chief enjoins a religious observance of said day and directs the Chaplains to prepare discourses proper for the occasion; strictly forbidding all recreations and unnecessary labor.” —George Washington, First President of the United States[4][5]

During the Quasi-War with France, President John Adams declared May 9, 1798 as "a day of solemn humility, fasting, and prayer," during which citizens of all faiths were asked to pray "that our country may be protected from all the dangers which threaten it".[10] On March 30, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation expressing the idea "that the awful calamity of civil war, which now desolates the land, may be but a punishment, inflicted upon us, for our presumptuous sins", and designated the day of April 30, 1863 as a day of "national humiliation, fasting and prayer" in the hope that God would respond by restoring "our now divided and suffering Country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace". He went on to say, " is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions, in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord."[11][12]

A Senate report incorrectly claims as part of the rationale for the law that prayers were conducted at the Constitutional Convention, which adopted the U.S. Constitution: “When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention encountered difficulties in the writing and formation of a Constitution for this Nation, prayer was suggested and became an established practice at succeeding sessions,” according to the report by the Committee on the Judiciary.[citation needed]

On April 17, 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer must be declared by each following president at an appropriate date of his choice. In 1982 a conservative evangelical Christian organization called the "National Prayer Committee" was formed to coordinate and implement a fixed annual day of prayer for the purpose of organizing evangelical Christian prayer events with local, state, and federal government entities.[13] In his 1983 declaration, Ronald Reagan said, "From General Washington's struggle at Valley Forge to the present, this Nation has fervently sought and received divine guidance as it pursued the course of history. This occasion provides our Nation with an opportunity to further recognize the source of our blessings, and to seek His help for the challenges we face today and in the future."[14]

Sailors bow their heads in prayer during the National Day of Prayer. May 3, 2007.

In 1988, the law was amended so that the National Day of Prayer would be held on the first Thursday of May. Two stated intentions of the National Day of Prayer were that it would be a day when adherents of all great religions could unite in prayer and that it may one day bring renewed respect for God to all the peoples of the world.[14]

More recently, the idea of an annual National Day of Prayer was introduced by the Rev. Billy Graham, who suggested it in the midst of a several-weeks crusade in the nation’s capitol. Members of the House and Senate introduced a joint resolution for an annual 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."[15]

Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush each hosted special events for the day only once during their administrations, President Bill Clinton did not hold any such events during his time in office, George W. Bush held events on the National Day of Prayer in each year of his presidency, and President Barack Obama did not hold a formal event for the NDOP on May 7, 2009.[16]

Legal challenge

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued to challenge the designation of a National Day of Prayer. On October 3, 2008, the Wisconsin-based organization filed suit in a federal court in Madison, naming as defendants President George W. Bush; White House press secretary Dana Perino; Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle; and evangelist Dobson's wife, Shirley Dobson, in her capacity as chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force.[17] The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) provided defense for Shirley Dobson while government lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb to dismiss the case, arguing principally that the group has no legal standing to sue.[18]

On March 1, 2010 U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb stated that FFRF's lawsuit can proceed forward because the plaintiffs had shown that they suffered "concrete injury" that can potentially be remedied by judicial action. Justice Crabb stated about those supporting the federal law designating the National Day of Prayer, "adopting [the] defendants' view of standing would allow the government to have unrestrained authority to demean members of any religious group without legal consequence. The federal government could declare the 'National Day of Anti-Semitism' or even declare Christianity the official religion of the United States, but no one would have standing to sue because no one would have to 'pass by' those declarations." [19] This was in regards to the defendants position that the plaintiffs did not have standing to engage in the lawsuit. Mr. Bolton, legal counsel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation stated, "The Foundation has never been opposed to nongovernment parties designating and participating in their own Day of Prayer activities. Here, however, government officials have too often adopted the religious perspective of Mrs. Dobson and the National Day of Prayer Task Force as the official public statement and position of the government. To the extent that Mrs. Dobson and the Task Force, operating from the Focus on the Family campus in Colorado Springs, concentrate on the private sphere, that is their prerogative. FFRF is concerned about the government's respect for the separation of church and state, which the court intends to address."[20]

On April 15, 2010, Judge Crabb ruled that the statute establishing the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional as it is "an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function." Judge Crabb also stated in her opinion, "If the government were interested only in acknowledging the role of religion in America, it could have designated a 'National Day of Religious Freedom' rather than promote a particular religious practice."[21][22] However, Crabb stayed her ruling pending the completion of appeals.[23]

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a notice to appeal the ruling on April 22, 2010,[24] and on April 14, 2011 a panel at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overruled Crabb's decision, stating that "a feeling of alienation cannot suffice as injury." They further stated that the President is free to make appeals to the public based on many kinds of grounds, including political and religious, and that such requests do not obligate citizens to comply and do not encroach on citizens' rights.[25] The same day, the Freedom From Religion Foundation announced that it would seek an en banc review of the ruling by the full Seventh Circuit court.[8]

See also


  1. ^ "36 U.S.C. § 119 : US Code - Section 119: National Day of Prayer". 
  2. ^ History of the National Day of Prayer
  3. ^ ADF on striking down of National Day of Prayer statute: “It’s America’s heritage, and this day belongs to Americans”
  4. ^ a b The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799: Volume 29, September 1, 1786-June 19, 1788
  5. ^ a b Pennsylvania Archives
  6. ^ Legal challenge to National Day of Prayer thrown out, The Christian Science Monitor
  7. ^ Court Dismisses Challenge to National Day of Prayer, USA Today
  8. ^ a b FFRF to seek en banc rehearing on National Day of Prayer ruling in 7th Circuit
  9. ^ Proclamation for a day of Fasting and Prayer, June 12, 1775
  10. ^ John Adams, "A Proclamation," March 23, 1798; printed in the Philadelphia Weekly Magazine, March 31, 1798.
  11. ^ Expanded from the version sent by the US Senate: Journal of the Senate, March 2, 1863 A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875, The Library of Congress
  12. ^ Abraham Lincoln Online - Proclamation Appointing a National Fast Day
  13. ^ National Prayer Committee website - Mission, Values, Call and Covenant
  14. ^ a b Proclamation 5017 -- National Day of Prayer, 1983
  15. ^ The Pluralism Project at Harvard University :America's National Day of Prayer (2006)
  16. ^ National Day of Prayer Task Force Knocks Obama White House, U.S. News & World Report, April 15, 2010, Dan Gilgof
  17. ^ Atheist group sues Bush over national prayer day
  18. ^ Freedom From Religion Foundation National Day of Prayer Case Proceeds
  19. ^ Decision of FFRF v. President Obama and Shirley Dobson
  20. ^ Court: FFRF suit against National Day of Prayer can proceed
  21. ^ "Opinion and Order". 
  22. ^ Gilgoff, Dan (16 April 2010). "Federal judge strikes down National Day of Prayer statute". CNN. Retrieved 16 April 2010. 
  23. ^ Richey, Warren (15 April 2010). "Federal judge: National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 17 April 2010. 
  24. ^ U.S. appeals ruling striking down National Day of Prayer
  25. ^ AP: Court dismisses suit over National Day of Prayer

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

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