Atheists, agnostics and secularists complain every year about the National Day of Prayer, but the Freedom From Religion Foundation, on behalf of its 13,700 members nationwide, is actually doing something about it.
The Foundation filed suit last fall, naming as defendants Pres. George W. Bush (now Barack Obama) and Shirley Dobson, director of the National Day of Prayer (NDP) Taskforce. The Foundation lawsuit in part alleges an inappropriate "hand-in-glove" relationship between government officials and the Focus on the Family offshoot.
The Foundation's federal challenge also names Wis. Gov. Jim Doyle. Every governor in the country last year issued a National Day of Prayer proclamation, at the demand of the NDP Taskforce. Doyle was one of many governors whose 2008 proclamation unabashedly aped the NDP Taskforce's dictated religious theme and scripture verse, as did Pres. Bush's proclamation. Doyle is again issuing a prayer proclamation this year, at the urging of the Wisconsin NDP Taskforce.
FFRF research has discovered that the National Day of Prayer was suggested by evangelist Billy Graham. Congress passed legislation requiring the president to issue a National Day of Prayer in 1952. Under Reagan, legislation was passed designating the first Thursday of every May as "National Day of Prayer." Violations have increased since that change, partly due to NDP Taskforce goals to get all governors and many local officials to also issue proclamations, plan events, prayer breakfasts and rallies.
The Foundation says the 1952 law is based on bad history: the false claim that our founders prayed at the Constitutional Convention. "Bad history has made very bad law," says Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.
"A privately-sponsored day of prayer would not be a problem," says Foundation co-president Dan Barker, author of the books Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist and Godless, "but it is boorish and it is unconstitutional for the president and governors to be dictating that citizens pray. This excludes and disenfranchises up to 15% of adult Americans and up to a quarter of young people in this nation who are not religious."
"Prayer proclamations not only violate the separation between church and state, but offend reality, by suggesting we can suspend of the natural laws of the universe through wishful thinking," notes Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor.
The Foundation and the freethought movement have long suggested a National Day of Reason.
"Congress ought to repeal this law and substitute a National Day of Service," Gaylor added. "That would be constitutional and, equally important, it would be useful! Prayer is a cop-out. If humans want to improve the world, we need to take action, not slavishly beg a supernatural power to do our work for us."
Freethinkers believe in deeds, not creeds, said Barker. Noted 19th century freethinker/attorney Robert Green Ingersoll famously wrote: "The hands that help are better far than lips that pray."
The Religious Right has used the first Thursday in May as an organizing tool to intimidate public officials for too many years, Barker said.
The Foundation last year also filed a challenge of the National Day of Prayer proclamation by Colorado Gov. Jim Ritter Jr., of Colorado in state court.
The Foundation is dealing with the usual roster of state/church complaints caused by the National Day of Prayer, most at the municipal level. Foundation staff attorney Rebecca Kratz has written mayors in Largo, El Paso and in Keizer, Ore. over official Mayor Prayer Breakfasts hosted or promoted by mayors. The event in El Paso is explicitly tied to a Christian proselytizing group. Gaylor wrote Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett over a "Ceasefire Sabbath" breakfast hosted this Friday for "faith leaders."
Since the lawsuit was filed, the NDP Taskforce website has taken a noticeably lower profile.
"We think our litigation is raising consciousness and is partly responsible for the fact that the White House under Pres. Obama has decided not to host a prayer event on Thursday," said Barker.