There is an ancient Scottish nursery rhyme that reads: “From Ghoulies and Ghosties and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us.” More dangerous to modern-day anti-prayer zealots than even the “ghoulies and beasties and things that go bump in the night” from which divine protection is needed, is prayer itself; or at least, voluntary prayer offered by public officials. The latest target for the prayer police? The National Day of Prayer, scheduled to be celebrated in Washington, DC and in communities across the country on May 6th.
Why are the these First Amendment zealots so hot under the clerical collar about National Prayer Day – something which has gone off without a hitch every year since first declared by President Harry Truman 58 years ago? It’s hard to say, since the event is the antithesis of controversy; bringing together men and women from across the political spectrum, representing many nationalities and diverse religious faiths, for a common, and, of course, voluntary, celebration of prayer. Notwithstanding its benign nature, this day of religious infamy now sits in the crosshairs of groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Admittedly, National Prayer Day does have a connection to the federal government. The annual presidential proclamations are issued pursuant to a law signed by President Truman in 1952. And therein lies its mortal sin, in the eyes of church-state purists.
Long before 1952, however, prayer figured explicitly and sometimes prominently in matters involving our federal government. When the very first Congress assembled in 1789, it was opened with a – gasp! – prayer. In fact, every day of every Congress since then, has begun with a prayer delivered by a priest, pastor, rabbi, or other religious leader invited by a member of Congress to do so. It is widely considered an honor to be so invited.
Yet, those seeking a “Chinese Wall” between any activity that is remotely religious and anything that is remotely connected to the government, are constantly casting about for new, otherwise innocuous religion-tinged events against which to file lawsuits. The fact that President Barack Obama, like every president before him back to Truman, has denoted one day each year as a “National Day of Prayer,” apparently was just too much for the prayer police to stomach.
Thus has continued a lawsuit initially filed during the administration of Mr. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, demanding to have National Prayer Day declared unconstitutional. Not surprisingly, the religion separatists were able to find a federal judge – this one in Madison, Wisconsin – to agree with their myopic view of the First Amendment. Judge Barbara Crabb did just that in a ruling earlier this month. Graciously, the judge permitted this year’s National Prayer Breakfast in the nation’s capital (and ironically in the shadow of the National Cathedral) to go on as scheduled.
Reflecting the multi-front nature of the assault on prayer practiced by various First Amendment fanatics, another self-styled “watchdog” group, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, campaigned successfully to have the Pentagon disinvite Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, to lead a military day of prayer May 6th. The entire prayer observance was then cancelled.
It may be that all these groups just have way too much time on their hands, with nothing to do but stir up lawsuits and forum shop for judges similarly inclined. Their motives, and the results of their efforts, however, are not so benign. By constantly sniping at virtually any activity in which government representatives engage that might fall into the category of “religious activity” – notwithstanding it be purely voluntary and in furtherance of nothing more than attempting to foster an atmosphere of greater civility and productivity in the public arena – these prayer police are diminishing the chances that public policy debates will actually soften and become more productive.