As Americans prepare to observe the 61st annual National Day of Prayer this week, the usual debate over interpretation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, specifically the Establishment Clause, also takes center stage. But this year is special, according to some, because the May 3 observance also marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision that invalidated official prayer in public schools.
"Some religious believers will likely use the day of prayer to call attention to what they view as a regrettable and consequential decision," John Inazu, a First Amendment expert and professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a statement emailed to The Christian Post, referencing the Supreme Court's landmark 1962 decision in Engel v. Vitale.
Inazu believes the this year's National Day of Prayer will reopen the debate on the Establishment Clause, which says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." In response to the annual day of prayer, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a secular advocacy group with some 18,000 members, has launched an "Ask Obama to end National Day of Prayer" petition. The group insists the nationwide observance is unconstitutional.
Whether official recognition of the National Day of Prayer violates the Establishment Clause is a complicated question, said Gregory Magarian, a constitutional law expert and Washington University in St. Louis law professor.
"There are two particular aspects of the National Day of Prayer issue that make it a tough one," according to Magarian.
"First, the question whether official policies that favor religion generally over non-religion generally has divided the justices of the Supreme Court, with no truly authoritative resolution to the question. Arguably the National Day of Prayer is such a policy. On the other hand, it may not be; not all religious practices prominent in the United States involve 'prayer' as such."
Secondly, he argues, "the court tends to grow more concerned about official policies that favor religion when the policies entail some kind of actual observance. Official recognition of a National Day of Prayer, without more, doesn't make anyone do anything."
Magarian says that if a public school imposed a prayer requirement on students in conjunction with the National Day of Prayer, it certainly would violate the Establishment Clause.
"But arguably official recognition of the day, without more, simply amounts to the sort of 'ceremonial deism' that the Court has long tolerated, for example, in allowing the words 'In God We Trust' to appear on money," he said. "On the other hand, the Court's prevailing doctrine rejects official practices that send a message of endorsement of religion, on grounds that such endorsements treat nonbelievers as second-class citizens."
The current Court would reject an Establishment Clause challenge to the National Day of Prayer, treating official recognition of the day as an inconsequential instance of ceremonial deism that shows equal regard to many religious beliefs, Magarian suggested.
Especially conservative Christians see attacks on the constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer as attacks on the freedom of worship.
"Not everyone is proud of our religious heritage, and some wish to delete this day from our history books," the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) said in a recent statement. "Having a national day of fasting and prayer is as much a part of our national landscape as voting booths and majestic mountain peaks."
The Christian advocacy organization believes that "as in George Washington's very first address as president, so indeed the first every address by any president to this nation, he called this nation to a day of prayer. The call to prayer has continued throughout our history, including President Lincoln's proclamation of a day of 'humiliation, fasting, and prayer' in 1863."
According to the National Day of Prayer Task Force, led by Shirley Dobson, "The National Day of Prayer has great significance for us as a nation. It enables us to recall and to teach the way in which our founding fathers sought the wisdom of God when faced with critical decisions. It stands as a call to us to humbly come before God, seeking His guidance for our leaders and His grace upon us as a people. The unanimous passage of the bill establishing the National Day of Prayer as an annual event, signifies that prayer is as important to our nation today as it was in the beginning."
Meanwhile, the Freedom From Religion Foundation argues the opposite, claiming that "Congress, in 1952, abridged freedom of conscience when, at the instigation of the Rev. Billy Graham, it designated a National Day of Prayer, ordering the President to proclaim 'a National Day of Prayer, on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals," according to the organization's petition reads.
The U.S. President has "neither the moral nor the constitutional authority to dictate to Americans to pray, much less to tell citizens what to pray about or set aside an entire day for prayer," the group argues. "Whether to pray, or believe in a god who answers prayer, is an intensely precious, personal decision protected under our First Amendment as a paramount matter of conscience. Don't let Christian evangelicals hijack our secular Constitution."
President Barack Obama issued his proclamation on the National Day of Prayer on Tuesday. In it, Obama writes:
"Prayer has always been a part of the American story, and today countless Americans rely on prayer for comfort, direction, and strength, praying not only for themselves, but for their communities, their country, and the world. On this National Day of Prayer, we give thanks for our democracy that respects the beliefs and protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience."
He adds, "I invite all citizens of our Nation, as their own faith directs them, to join me in giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy, and I call upon individuals of all faiths to pray for guidance, grace, and protection for our great Nation as we address the challenges of our time."