Federal government, religious groups join to celebrate God

Thursday, May 6, 1999

As thousands of people nationwide gather today to celebrate a congressionally established day of prayer, some civil rights advocates are asking why the federal government is promoting religious activity.

In 1952, Congress passed a joint resolution calling on the president to announce annually a National Day of Prayer, encouraging citizens to seek divine guidance. In the late 1980s Republican President Ronald Reagan signed an amendment to the bill to set the prayer day on the first Thursday of May. “On our National Day of Prayer, then, we join together as people of many faiths to petition God to show us His mercy and His love, to hear our weariness and uphold our hope, that we might live ever mindful of His justice and thankful for his blessing,” Reagan said upon signing the amendment.

Today marks the 48th National Day of Prayer, and according to a nonprofit, religiously affiliated group that encourages, promotes and hosts prayer-day activities, several million people were expected to participate in about 20,000 events nationwide.

The National Day of Prayer Task Force is housed in James Dobson's ultraconservative Focus on the Family ministry in Colorado Springs, Colo., and is chaired by his wife, Shirley Dobson. The task force's mission is to “communicate with every family the need for personal repentance and prayer, and to mobilize families to personal and corporate prayer, particularly on behalf of the nation and those in leadership of all levels of local, national, church and educational areas of influence.”

The task force, moreover, says the resolution creating prayer day had a “great significance for us as a nation” because it allowed Americans “to recall and to teach the way in which our founding fathers sought the wisdom of God when faced with critical decisions.”

In Washington, D.C., the task force held its observances in a House of Representatives caucus room. The event included speeches by Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., and Alabama state court Judge Roy Moore. Moore has garnered notoriety for opening his judicial sessions with Christian prayer and posting a copy of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. All of the task force's events, also to include a Bible-reading marathon, will take place on Capitol grounds.

Although Democratic President Harry Truman called the National Day of Prayer a nonsectarian event, it has become dominated and operated by Protestant evangelicals. The task force's “National Day of Prayer Fact Sheet” states that “Americans of all faiths” are encouraged to participate, although the group's promotional materials and sponsors keep “with the Judeo-Christian tradition.” The task force's resource manual also includes a section on how to be a prayer-day volunteer. The task force says “a volunteer must be a Christian who has a personal relationship with God.”

The task force's involvement in coordinating and hosting the National Day of Prayer events has some civil rights advocates calling on Congress to end the government's participation.

(At least one governor has decided not to issue a National Day of Prayer proclamation. The Associated Press reported that Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, a politician with Libertarian tendencies, showed support for the First Amendment in a statement issued today.

“I believe in the separation of church and state,” Ventura said. “We all have our own religious beliefs. There are people out there who are atheists, who don't believe at all. They are all citizens of Minnesota and I have to respect that.”)

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, yesterday called on Congress to repeal the National Day of Prayer, saying the resolution and Congress' partnership with the task force violates the separation of church and state.

Steve Benen, a spokesman for Americans United, said that the rhetoric of the task force should prompt members of Congress to repeal the resolution, leaving religious leaders, without government involvement, to promote days of prayer on their own.

The First Amendment states, in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“It is particularly troubling to see this task force has taken over and is hosting the day of prayer all over the country and hosting it in a House of Representatives room with the help of congressmen,” Benen said. “As a principle, our group believes it is wrong for Congress to be asking people to pray and to set up a special day for prayer.”

Chris Allen, the Utah state director of American Atheists, says the goal of the task force is “not to simply promote prayer, but to mix government and religion.”

Shirley Dobson, however, rejects such criticism, saying that “only through the power of prayer will our nation return to God and be healed of its many ills.”

Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by televangelist Pat Robertson, has defended the task force and the National Day of Prayer as religious speech protected by the Bill of Rights.

“Unfortunately, despite the long history of official governmental acknowledgment of the role of religion in American life and observation of the National Day of Prayer, there are still those who would challenge that observation and the right of private citizens to participate in National Day of Prayer activities on public property or in the public schools,” Sekulow stated in a National Prayer Day memo issued late last month.

President Clinton yesterday issued a proclamation calling on Americans to observe and participate in the National Day of Prayer.

“On this National Day of Prayer, observed so soon after the tragedy in Littleton, Colorado, and the tornadoes that devastated communities in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma, we are more keenly aware than ever of the power and solace we find in prayer,” Clinton said in a prepared statement. “I encourage the citizens of this great nation to pray, each in his or her own manner, seeking strength from God to face the problems of today, requesting guidance for the uncertainties of tomorrow, and giving thanks for the rich blessings that our country has enjoyed throughout its history.”