IntroductionThe National Day of Prayer is celebrated by the federal government and millions of Americans each year. This brief report will look at its origins, with particular emaphasis on how the government and courts have interpreted ‘public prayer’ events. Case studies include Troy, Michigan with a summary of relevant issues. Further resources are provided in the conclusion.
HistoryEarly in the history of the United States, citizens have participated in public prayer ceremonies. Even before independence from Britain, colonialists at Plymouth prayed in public settings with government officials as early as their first winter. Several holidays in the colonies involved times for prayer, thanksgiving and spiritual reflection in government-sponsored events. In addition, the Constitutional Congress opened and closed several meetings with prayer. By 1775, the government issued an official proclamation that set aside one day for prayer. At the time, a variety of Protestant Christians interpreted prayer and the theological language associated with it in different ways. Put differently, Puritans, Separatists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Episcopalians and Deists certainly did not all agree on the particulars of a state-sponsored religious service. Tensions and diversity continue to the present day.Continuing the tradition of prayer services, many presidents have led pubic invocations with references to God. According the National Day of Prayer Taskforce, “the call to prayer has continued through our history, including President Lincoln's proclamation of a day of ‘humiliation, fasting, and prayer’ in 1863.” Frequently, in times of war, the Executive and Legislative Branches of Government have requested prayers from US citizens. For example, President Franklin Roosevelt called for prayers from Americans when US troops stormed the beaches of Normandy. In 1952, a joint resolution by Congress, signed by President Truman, declared an annual, national day of prayer. In 1981, according to ThanksGiving Square, “...former Ambassador to Britain and Cabinet member Anne Armstrong asked President Ronald Reagan to return the National Day of Prayer to its original spring date. Her mission was to revive the 200-year-old cycle of ‘spring prayer and fall thanksgiving’ established by the Continental Congress. As a result, the first Thursday in May became the official National Day of Prayer. Congress confirmed the day in 1988.” In March 2003, the US House of Representatives signed resolution 346-49 a day of prayer to seek guidance from God to achieve a greater understanding of the country’s ‘failings and to learn how it could do better in everyday activities, and to gain resolve in meeting the challenges that confront nations’. Today, many participate in this National Day of Prayer, some wanting more equal access in the public areana when religion is evoked. The National Day of Prayer Taskforce, [ND(C)P] notes that, “each year, the president signs a proclamation, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day.(1) Last year, all 50 state governors plus the governors of several U.S. territories signed similar proclamations. Last year, over two million people participated in more than 40,000 observances organized by approximately 40,000 volunteers.” One can find Massachusetts or any other state with proclamations signed by respective governors. Given the religious diversity of Americans today, how have the courts interpreted a government-endorsed public ceremony of conversing with the Divine? Judges have made decisions in hundreds of cases regarding prayer in public spaces and those events associated with government institutions. Rulings on prayer in school, as one example, are summarized by the Anti-Defamation League and provide a helpful context to better understand National Day of Prayer observances. Generally, organized prayer in the public school setting (even a non-denominational prayer), whether at a school-sponsored event or in the classroom, is unconstitutional. Private, voluntary prayer is constitutionally permissible as long as it does not interfere with the school's educational mission. Religious activity must be student-initiated, without a school employee endorsing or leading the event. Even at graduation, prayers delivered by clergy at official public school ceremonies are unconstitutional (Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577, 1992; Santa Fe Independent School Dist., 530 U. S. 290). The Supreme Court has also ruled against student-led prayer before football games or assemblies since the setting is central to student life however voluntary (Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290, 2000). According to the National Conference for Community and Justice, other key court rulings include: -1962: In a 6-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rules public school prayer unconstitutional (Engel vs. Vitale).
Case Study: TroySeveral case studies provide helpful examples of how cities wrestle with religious diversity on the National Day of Prayer. A few years ago, the town of Troy, gained national media attention. Just outside Detroit, Michigan, the city Troy is a diverse community located in one of the five most prosperous counties in the United States. Staring in 1995, the ND(C)P Task Force began leading an exclusively Christian prayer service on the National Day of Prayer in May on Veterans Plaza in front of City Hall. Last year, Mayor Lousie E. Schilling had previously asked Padma Kuppa, an Indian-born US citizen, to give a Hindu prayer during her introduction of the event so as to transform a Christian event into an interfaith observance of prayer. The ND(C)P Task Force objected, along with a handful of council members. The next year, in 2005, Padma Kuppa, personally contacted the ND(C)P Task Force coordinator, Lori Wagner, and requested that other faith communities be represented. Ms. Kuppa was denied a speaking role in their event but was welcomed to organize a separate, interfaith service at a different time. The issue returned to the City Council and Mayor Schilling and Mayor Pro Tem Robin E. Beltramini voted against the ND(C)P Task Force from using the City Hall at noon if their prayer service was going to exclude non-Christians. According to the Detroit News, Beltramini explained, “I voted against it because they wanted to hold a Christian-only observance. Troy is a very diverse community, and it would have been wrong to put a narrowly crafted celebration on the steps of City Hall, particularly at the Veterans Plaza.” Ms. Schilling and Ms. Beltramini offered the group alternate sites, including the north end of the civic center, the front lawn of City Hall, and near the Peace Garden by the Troy Public Library. In response to their initial defeat, the ND(C)P Task Force consulted with lawyers and other groups, such the American Center for Law and Justice, American Family Association of Michigan (AFA-M) and the Troy Committee to Protect Free Speech. Afterwards, ND(C)P Task Force contacted the City Council again claiming their constitutional right to free speech, even if that meant holding a Christian prayer service on Veterans Plaza in front of City Hall. Other organizations got involved, helping with legal briefs and making public statements. According to AFA-M website, “Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, in a statement Wednesday accused Mayor Schilling and two Troy City Council members who voted against approving the permit of “heavy-handed bigotry and collusion to deny the National Day of Prayer Task Force its constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom, free speech, and equal access rights....After routinely allowing all manner of organizations to meet at Veterans Park, including this very same Christian prayer group each year for a decade, Mayor Schilling and her ‘P.C. police’ cannot now arbitrarily deny the National Day of Prayer Task Force equal access to city hall.” Glenn went on to insist that one “cannot make the group’s free exercise of its constitutional rights contingent on the presence of other groups who share a different faith”. In other words, Mayor Schilling and like-minded officials should not “dictate the terms under which private citizens can peacefully exercise their constitutional free speech rights, including on city property routinely allowed to be used as a public forum.” AFA-Michigan’s national legal affiliate threatened a federal civil rights lawsuit if the City Hall permit was unconstitutionally denied. The majority of the Council (i.e., Howrylak, Broomfield, Lambert and Stine) voted in favor of allowing the ND(C)P Task Force to host their 10th annual Christian prayer service. The Council also suggested the Interfaith Group met at the same location, but an hour earlier. The Troy Interfaith Group, with support from the National Conference for Community and Justice (NCCJ) and the Forge Institute, decided to host another interfaith prayer service at Northminster Presbyterian Church at 7:00 PM on May 5, 2005. They attracted about 250 people, about the same number as the NDP(C) Task Force. After each respective group celebrated the National Day of Prayer, critics of Ms. Schilling and Ms. Beltramini have begun efforts for a vote recall on their elected positions. According the Detroit News, “The Troy Committee to Protect Free Speech must gather 7,344 signatures of voters who want to recall Mayor Louise Schilling and Mayor Pro Tem Robin Beltramini. The signatures must be gathered within 180 days, then turned in to the county clerk's office within 90 days after that. If the county clerk's office determines the signatures are valid, the Elections Commission can propose a recall election date. Schilling and Beltramini can challenge the signatures.” Clearly, the issue of religious diversity and public prayer will remain a heated political topic in Troy, Michigan, for some time.
Other Case StudiesThe website for Religious Tolerance includes several other examples where religious groups disagreed on how to observe the National Day of Prayer. In 2003, for example, organizers in Muncie, Indiana first tried to arrange a multi-faith event but claim they were unsuccessful. A Unitarian Universalist minister, Thomas Perchlik, and others promoted a multi-faith meeting involving individuals and prayers from many Christian denominations and from other religious traditions. However, the president of the Delaware County Evangelistic Association, Pastor William Keller, did not see the purpose, or ‘spiritual power’, in praying to or in the name of other Gods and was content to let Perchlik’s group organize a separate event. Perchlik, on the other hand, wanted to celebrate the community’s diversity and unity together. In 2005, officials in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, experienced similar concerns but met them with a different solution. On their website, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) state: "For too long, the National Day of Prayer has been held captive by the Religious Right. This year, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is planning a rescue. ‘Let Freedom Ring: A Celebration of Freedom of Conscience,’ (is) an event sponsored by the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United, (and) will be open to Americans of all faiths - as well as those who don't pray.” Cosponsored by Baptists and the Interfaith Alliance, they led a prayer service on the South Steps of the State Capitol on May 5 at 11 a.m.
Summary of Main IssuesSome of the main issues related to the National Day of Prayer include: free speech of religious diverse civil communities and a ‘secular’ government’s relationship to sponsoring a religious prayer ceremony. In terms of the former issue of liberty, both sides claim their right to free speech. ‘Exclusive’ religious groups wish to express their religious beliefs separately each year. More pluralistic religious groups wish to share equal access to public space. What is to be done? First off, the courts have consistently ruled that the US government is prohibited from promoting religion or one tradition over another. Thus, elected officials must offer different religious groups similar public venues. Many services in the past have involved elected officials playing leading roles on the National Day of Prayers. Some have vocalized their personal, and often times Christian, faith. Can and should elected officials vocalize ‘exclusive’ elements of their particular religious tradition or should they promote a more unified, civil religion and let clergy articulate particular but ‘friendly’ distinctives? For the sake of the community, it’s probably best for elected officials to promote those ideals and symbols that unify the commonwealth within bounds of their conscience. If an official is afraid of ‘watering down their religious tradition’ perhaps a private ceremony, on privately-owned property would be more appropriate. When it comes to interfaith services, it seems religious groups need to respect each others' right to join along (and thus invite as many religious groups as possible) and/or to decline politely.
ResourcesA number of resources are available on the internet. A few will be mentioned here. Middle East Activist offers guidelines to Muslim-Christian prayer services. They also offer sample prayers for peace from May and June 2002. The World Prayers Project and Peace Prayers list a number of prayers that may be appropriate in interreligious services. Susan Kramer offers an essay on Interfaith and Ecumencial Prayers. Finally, Catharine Cookson, Director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom of Virginia Wesleyan College, also offers some advice to Interfaith Religious Leaders.
Footnotes1) Some have argued their name should be changed to National Day of Christian Prayer Task Force or ND(C)P, because of their desire to organize prayer services exclusively for and in the name of Jesus Christ.