By Sandhya Bathija
Today is the congressionally mandated National Day of Prayer (NDP), and despite a recent federal court decision ruling the day unconstitutional, it must still go on.
A few weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the 1952 statute mandating a national day of prayer was unconstitutional because it’s sole purpose “is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience.”
That decision has been appealed, and as such, President Barack Obama is still obligated by law to recognize the day until court proceedings are officially over. On Monday, Obama issued the NDP proclamation, but unlike his predecessor, there were no bells and whistles accompanying his statements.
If you recall, Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush held observances in the East Room of the White House with guests including Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and his wife, Shirley.
The Dobson’s no longer receive that invitation.
For years, Shirley Dobson has led the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a privately funded, evangelical group that holds events across the country on this day. Since 1989, Focus on the Family has written presidential proclamations and prayers that presidents and other public officials have used. The events sponsored by the Task Force were exclusive to one faith tradition and ignored the diversity of beliefs (and non-beliefs) found in our country.
That’s why this day is so important to Religious Right groups – it’s a holiday that supports their narrow understanding of one religion – Christianity. Over the past few weeks, they have desperately fought Crabb’s ruling, and even put pressure on their allies in Congress to save the NDP.
As Vickie Sandell Stangl, president of the Great Plains Chapter of AU, wrote in a column for the Wichita Eagle, “The real motive behind the National Day of Prayer is obvious: to advance the evangelical agenda that America is a Christian nation and all other beliefs or ideas are wrong.”
Otherwise, the NDP Task Force would be offering up more inclusive events for ALL Americans. That’s what Rabbi Merrill Shapiro is doing today in Florida.
Shapiro, president of AU’s Board of Trustees, is holding a Day of Inclusivity and Meditation in Palm Coast, Fla. The event is sponsored by the Flagler County Chapter of AU and was organized for all those “who chafe at the idea of someone else, particularly government entities, telling us to pray and when,” Shapiro said.
It’s obvious that Americans don’t need a government-sponsored day to pray. But this day has never really even been about prayer or the freedom to pray or not.
Instead, the NDP has served as another opportunity for the Religious Right to exert its influence on our government and laws and send a not-so-subtle message that those who don’t agree with the Religious Right on theology are second-class citizens.
Hopefully, come next May, it will all be over.