National Day of Prayer a testament to America's uniqueness, backers say
National Day of Prayer activities include speeches and gatherings of many different faiths. Controversial to some, the National Day of Prayer has roots in the earliest days of the nation.
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“From a constitutional perspective, there is nothing infirm about a National Day of Prayer,” says Harold Krent, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. “Congress has not thereby established a religion, nor has it infringed anyone’s right to follow the dictates of his or her own religion.”Skip to next paragraph
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That said, the day could be applied in an unconstitutional manner, he says.
“For instance, school districts requiring prayer on a National Day of Prayer would, in all likelihood, violate the Establishment Clause. Schools can study about prayer and the role of prayer in our lives, but not require or even strongly encourage prayer, particularly in younger grades," says Professor Kent. "Conversely, however, governors and the president can encourage us to pray in our private lives, without establishing a religion or coercing religious practices.”
Such observances will go on in dozens of forms – from long speeches to short notices to silent prayers sponsored by congregations small and large.
“This is a very positive thing and the more of it and the more diverse, the better,” says author and television personality Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. “Unlike Europe, where such a day would be impossible, this is what makes the US the multiple and varied society that it is. We are all Americans and pray to the same God. This spotlights the collective and raises us all above our denominations to realize we are all one, human family.”
The origin of the day goes back to the Founding Fathers.
The Continental Congress asked the colonies to pray for wisdom in forming a nation in 1775, and Thomas Jefferson said in 1808: “Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.”
Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War proclaimed a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in 1863. Ninety years later, Congress passed a formal declaration marking an annual event on the first Thursday of May and Harry Truman signed it into law.
“Muslims already pray by themselves five times a day,” says Mr. Ali, director of Project Islamic HOPE (Helping Oppressed People Everywhere), an advocacy organization in Los Angeles. “What makes this different for us is that we can build solidarity with other faiths.”