Today is the National Day of Prayer, an opportunity for people of many faiths to act on what is certainly a universal human inclination; the impulse to give thanks, to forgive and ask forgiveness and to petition God for provision and blessing and greater wisdom. We live in a time of great need for such activity – a time of economic trouble, war, and division.
As a nation with deep and extensive Christian roots, such observances have always been a part of our cultural activity. Beyond religious institutions, we have recognized the importance of prayer for the unity and consolation of our nation. The first proclamations for days of national prayer came with the Continental Congress and were advocated by our first presidents. In fact the practice has been relatively uncontroversial – until recently.
A recent lawsuit brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation sought to render unconstitutional the accepted practice of US Presidents since the founding of the nation; and they almost succeeded.
In April of 2010, a US District Judge Crabb (an apt name) ruled for the Foundation writing that the practice was unconstitutional, crossing the line from mere acknowledgement of religious practice to encouragement. It isn’t clear where the Constitution forbids the encouragement of prayer via Presidential proclamation, as it is not law nor does it establish a religion but the courts have greatly expanded understanding of the 1st amendment in recent years to suit the desires of secularists. While her ruling was definitive, it was uncertain what power a District court had to control what a President proclaimed.
Nonetheless, the ruling was rightly appealed (for which the Obama administration deserves praise) and recently overturned by a 3-0 decision of a US Court of appeals. As the court employed ‘lack of standing’ to overturn decision in the same way the Supreme Court did in the recent Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn case, the ruling is likely to persist through appeals. In the ruling Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook rightly noted of Obama’s proclamation that, “… no one is obligated to pray, any more than a person would be obligated to hand over his money if the president asked all citizens to support the Red Cross and other charities…The president has made a request; he has not issued a command. No one is injured by a request that can be declined.” It seems a rather obvious conclusion.
So we are again free to do what we have been doing for over 200 years.
The upside to these challenges is they give us an appreciation for the freedoms we have and remind us how fragile and rare the liberties we enjoy are. This is more than appropriate for a day of prayer as gratitude is the best motivation for prayer. Though there have been significant recent rulings in favor of religious liberty it is obvious there is concerted effort afoot by emboldened atheists and secularist fellow travelers to diminish the religious character and practice of our country.
This fact alone should encourage us to pray today with greater fervency.