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The National Day of Prayer and other Presidential Proclamations

Updated on July 2, 2012

At the behest of the historically and constitutionally illiterate Freedom From Religion Foundation, the apparently historically and constitutionally illiterate US District Judge Barbara Crabb declared the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional.

She said that the government cannot enact laws to support a day of prayer any more than it can encourage citizens to practice magic, fast during Ramadan, or attend a synagogue.

Leaving aside the question of whether proclamation of the National Day of Prayer has ever excluded Jews, Moslems, or anyone else from praying on that day, the ruling shows a shocking ignorance of, well, too many things to list here.

With Chabad rabbis from across the world looking on, President George W. Bush signs a presidential proclamation in honor of the 2008 Education and Sharing Day, and highlighting the important work of the Chabad Lubavitch movement.
With Chabad rabbis from across the world looking on, President George W. Bush signs a presidential proclamation in honor of the 2008 Education and Sharing Day, and highlighting the important work of the Chabad Lubavitch movement.

Officially Sanctioned National Observances

The National Day of Prayer is hardly unique. The Wikipedia's "List of observances in the United States by presidential proclamation" comprises 46 special days, 25 special weeks (some associated with special days), and 30 special months.

To be sure, none of them encourage citizens to practice magic, fast during Ramadan, or attend a synagogue. But they do all encourage Americans to do or to acknowledge the importance of something.

January 16 is Religious Freedom Day. I suppose the Freedom From Religion Foundation crowd can celebrate that as much as anyone else. But by their logic, shouldn't they object as much to a presidential proclamation of anything concerning religion? Where did they protest this one?

The President proclaims Education and Sharing Day some time in late March or April. I can't be more precise, because the exact date is based on the Hebrew lunar calendar. I can't imagine anyone objecting to education or sharing either separately or together, but it follows a Jewish religious calendar. Religious!! Does that make it unconstitutional?

Display of videos for sale for Black History Month
Display of videos for sale for Black History Month
Young lady speaks to kick off Black History Month before a ch-ch-church! service
Young lady speaks to kick off Black History Month before a ch-ch-church! service

These are not the only national observances of some aspect of religion and/or prayer. As long as a group of outsiders is protesting being encouraged to acknowledge religion, couldn't men just as legitimately protest Women's Equality Day? Or white people protest Minority Enterprise Development Week or Black History Month?

If the National Day of Prayer unconstitutionally influences an individual's decision whether or when to pray, does the proclamation of Gay and Lesbian Pride Month unconstitutionally influence an individual's attitude toward homosexuality?

I find days, weeks, or months proclaimed to honor the heritage of Greeks, Armenians, Germans, Native Americans, Irish, Jews, Asians, Caribbean nations, Hispanics, and National American Indians. Do these observances exclude or violate the rights of anyone else?

The First Amendment

The national observances mentioned in the previous three paragraphs do not involve religion. Some may therefore protest that they have nothing to do with the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of the National Day of Prayer. What does the Constitution say?

The First Amendment begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The Freedom From Religion Foundation alleges that proclamation of the National Day of Prayer amounts to an establishment of religion and violates separation of church and state.

The establishment of religion specifically means supporting an officially recognized religious institution with tax money. Until the Fourteenth Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to state governments as well as the federal government, the First Amendment did not keep states from establishing a religion (that is, a denomination).

Several of them did well into the nineteenth century. In aggregate, they established several different religions and had done so since colonial times. It would have clearly been impossible to agree on establishing any one denomination at the federal level with more than one already established at the state level.

Is separation of church and state a constitutional principle at all? The phrase first appeared in a private letter written by Thomas Jefferson. Within the eighteenth understanding of "religion" having to do with a particular denomination, the First Amendment did indeed erect separation between between the institution of the government at the federal level and the institution of any particular church denomination.

Separation of church and state does not equal separation of religion and state by any other meaning of "religion." In establishing the National Day of Prayer, Congress did not establish either a church or religion in general. It did not force anyone to be religious any more than it forced anyone to be homosexual in establishing Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.

An unconstitutional demand.
An unconstitutional demand.

In fact, the very idea that freedom OF religion really means freedom FROM religion risks running afoul of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. After all, the free exercise of any religion must include the right to practice that religion and advocate it publicly.

Remember the year when both Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson ran for President? The "freedom from religion" crowd was up in arms about the possibility of having a preacher in the White House. I thought it would be fun to see the look on their faces if both preachers won their parties' nominations.

Not only does the First Amendment guarantee presidential candidates the right to advocate for their religion views, but Article VI Section 3 of the Constitution explicitly forbids religious tests as a qualification for office. The constitution forbade requiring an office-seeker to be a member of the Church of America even before it forbade the establishment of such a church.

By what principle, then did the "freedom from religion" crowd suggest that it somehow forbade Robertson and Jackson from running for President? Probably the same backside-to-reason thinking that Crabb used to decide that members of Congress and Presidents cannot exercise their own freedom of religion by declaring that prayer is worthy of honor with a national observance.

1787 congressional resolution granting public land to the Moravians to Christianize Delaware Indians.
1787 congressional resolution granting public land to the Moravians to Christianize Delaware Indians.
Benjamin Franklin's speech to the Constitutional Convention requesting that each session begin with prayer
Benjamin Franklin's speech to the Constitutional Convention requesting that each session begin with prayer

The Founding Fathers

I don't want to argue for "original intent" of the Constitution here. I don't even agree with all of the reasons used to support such an argument. But surely the Constitution means what it says and not something else. I also believe that what the people who wrote it did and said in various speeches and writings are very helpful in properly interpreting the meaning of the wording of the Constitution.

According to a Library of Congress exhibit on "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic," the Continental-Confederation Congress, which governed from the Declaration of Independence until the enactment of the Constitution, invested tremendous energy in encouraging the practice of a nondenominational Christianity. Among other things, they proclaimed national days of "humiliation, fasting, and prayer" at least two times per year during the war.

In his Farewell Address (par. 27), George Washington explicitly denied that "national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. He was not one of the more religious of his time. In so saying, he merely expressed the same views found in many other contemporary documents.

Jefferson's famous recommendation of a "wall of separation between church and state" did not prevent him from attending the non-denominational church services held every Sunday in the House of Representatives. In fact, according to the Library of Congress, that chamber continued to host worship services until after the Civil War.

He found these services acceptable because they were nonsectarian and voluntary. Actually, though, they were exclusively Protestant during his lifetime. The first Catholic priest did not officiate in the House until 1826.

James Madison, who wrote the First Amendment and was more than anyone else responsible for the shape and content of the Constitution, found his plan to divide the central government into three branches in Isaiah 33:22: "For the Lord is our judge [judiciary], the Lord is our lawgiver [Congress], the Lord is our king [President]; He will save us."

As President, he signed "An Act for the relief of the Bible Society of Philadelphia." Apparently he did not interpret the constitutional ban on establishment of a national church to forbid giving federal funds to aid mass distribution of the Bible. He, too, regularly attended church at the Capitol.

Creche --  Menorah--  Rudolf? If Christian symbols can be banned despite the First Amendment, what might come next?
Creche -- Menorah-- Rudolf? If Christian symbols can be banned despite the First Amendment, what might come next?
Freedom of Speech
Freedom of Speech

The Danger of Judge Crabb's Ruling

The petition by the Freedom From Religion Foundation has no legal or historical merit whatsoever. That they could find a judge to uphold it is truly scary. We live in a day where our universities spend more energy teaching students what to think than how to think. And what they have taught students to think in recent years amply demonstrates their contempt for the foundational principles of American society.

The Texas State Board of Educationsuggested that the public school curriculum ought to include understanding of the original founding principles of the United States (including the religious views and activities of its leaders). The mass media reacted by printing horror stories of a right-wing takeover of education. Academics signed protest petitions that show no familiarity with the Board's actual proposals.

Why is a "right-wing takeover" any worse than the left-wing takeover that has taken place over the last forty years or so? Many of the Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians and the rest were deeply religious. That was common knowledge fifty years ago, but it has since disappeared from public discourse.

In its place, we have agnostic groups taking specious arguments to the courts. (Remember that "agnostic" is the Greek equivalent of the Latin "ignoramus." It is a totally pseudo-intellectual position that dares to paint religious people as anti-intellectual.) Now they have found a judge with an intellectual capacity no higher than theirs.

If these people, with their open contempt for easily verifiable facts, prevail at higher levels of the judiciary, it will endanger not only freedom of religion, but simple intellectual honesty.


Pat Robertson on the Haitian Earthquake: Truth, Error, and Distortion. Even when a Christian leader makes a misstep, people are likely to jump him for all the wrong reasons, in ignorance or willful distortion of the context of his remarks.

Why are the stars falling? A look at recent celebrity scandals. Not all fallen stars profess Christianity, but many do. They succumb to a pervasive moral relativism and sense of entitlement that speaks throughout society more insistently than Christianity does. "Religion," in terms of its moral imperatives, ought to have greater influence on public figures, not less, even if they are elected to high office.

Hezekiah Prepares for Worship. Hezekiah, one of the godliest kings in the Bible, followed one of the ungodliest. His reformations reinstated proper worship, but they were too late. His father's idolatry and cowardice had reduced a once-powerful nation to the status of vassal of the brutal Assyrian empire.See also my blogpost Dealing with bad news the right way.


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    • allpurposeguru profile imageAUTHOR

      David Guion 

      5 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks, Bibowen. This is a fairly old post by now, but the issue is still important. Your comment shows me that people are still reading it. I'm as pleased by that as by your agreement with my viewpoint and your vote. In other words, very pleased!

    • Bibowen profile image

      William R Bowen Jr 

      5 years ago

      I could not agree more. This was a fine presentation of this issue. Voted up.

    • allpurposeguru profile imageAUTHOR

      David Guion 

      7 years ago from North Carolina

      Thank you for appending this long extract of primary source material. It truly adds value to the discussion. The fact remains that Neither Jefferson nor Madison considered non-sectarian church services in the Capitol an establishment of religion. Granted the services both attended do not appear as non-sectarian to us as they did at the time.

      As far as Madison's document showing that he would have thought a National Day of Prayer unconstitutional, perhaps you didn't read point 4 carefully enough. He says that Pres. Washington proclaimed a general thanksgiving in such a way that it included everyone who believed in a supreme ruler of the universe, whereas Pres. Adams proclaimed a specifically Christian thanksgiving. Pres. Jefferson issued no such proclamation at all. Madison adds that he himself received criticism for issuing a general proclamation like Washington instead of a specifically Christian proclamation like Adams. Note that he declined to follow Jefferson's example.

      Since the National Day of Prayer is proclaimed generally, so that includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, any remaining Deists, and anyone who prays just in case, you cannot seriously suggest that Madison would have considered it unconstitutional given that he himself made a comparable proclamation.

      My point remains, and the document you presented confirms, that separation of church and state as understood and practiced by Madison, Jefferson, or anyone else from the time that you may care to quote does not forbid the National Day of Prayer.

      On what possible and intellectually respectable basis does anyone today propose a different definition of separation of church and state? Not only does the freedom from religion crown err in opposing the National Day of Prayer, they have a hissy fit over over creches and crosses on public property, municipal shields that have any religious symbolism even if they date from Madison's time, and even choirs in public high schools singing sacred music! I repeat. They are either historically illiterate or cynical enough to hope that if they shout their lies loudly and often enough, they can fool enough people who don't bother to investigate at all. The freedom from religion crowd wants nothing less than the establishment of irreligion. Unfortunately they keep finding judges that don't object. But that's every bit as unconstitutional as declaringthe Baptist church or some other denomination as the national religion, and for exactly the same reasons Madison enumerated in the document you provided.

    • adagio4639 profile image

      Larry Allen Brown 

      7 years ago from Brattleboro Vermont

      >"The First Amendment begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The Freedom From Religion Foundation alleges that proclamation of the National Day of Prayer amounts to an establishment of religion and violates separation of church and state."<

      Well..I'm sorry if this disappoints you, but they're right. Perhaps since you're citing the first amendment here we should consult with the author of that amendment. Or would you consider him historically illiterate as well? BTW..this comment,"He found these services acceptable because they were nonsectarian and voluntary. Actually, though, they were exclusively Protestant during his lifetime. The first Catholic priest did not officiate in the House until 1826." undermines your entire case and is an illustration of what Madison was saying.

      This is from the "historically illiterate" James Madison's Detached Memoranda. It begins with reference to the appointment of Chaplains to Congress, the army, and then to proclamations. Remember, this is the man that authored the 1st Amendment and the man that you are referring to in order to support your argument.

      From the Detached Memoranda:

      " Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation?"

      "The establishment of the chaplainship to Congs is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles: The tenets of the chaplains elected [by the majority shut the door of worship agst the members whose creeds & consciences forbid a participation in that of the majority. To say nothing of other sects, this is the case with that of Roman Catholics & Quakers who have always had members in one or both of the Legislative branches. Could a Catholic clergyman ever hope to be appointed a Chaplain! To say that his religious principles are obnoxious or that his sect is small, is to lift the evil at once and exhibit in its naked deformity the doctrine that religious truth is to be tested by numbers or that the major sects have a tight to govern the minor."

      "Better also to disarm in the same way, the precedent of Chaplainships for the army and navy, than erect them into a political authority in matters of religion. The object of this establishment is seducing; the motive to it is laudable. But is it not safer to adhere to a right principle, and trust to its consequences, than confide in the reasoning however specious in favor of a wrong one."

      "Religious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root with the legislative acts reviewed.

      Altho' recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.

      The objections to them are:

      1. that Govts ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Govt is a contradiction in terms.

      2. The members of a Govt as such can in no sense, be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people. In their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station, they might unite in recommendations of any sort whatever, in the same manner as any other individuals might do. But then their recommendations ought to express the true character from which they emanate.

      3. They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious idea of a national religion. The idea just as it related to the Jewish nation under a theocracy, having been improperly adopted by so many nations which have embraced Xnity, is too apt to lurk in the bosoms even of Americans, who in general are aware of the distinction between religious & political societies. The idea also of a union of all to form one nation under one Govt in acts of devotion to the God of all is an imposing idea. But reason and the principles of the Xn religion require that all the individuals composing a nation even of the same precise creed & wished to unite in a universal act of religion at the same time, the union ought to be effected thro' the intervention of their religious not of their political representatives. In a nation composed of various sects, some alienated widely from others, and where no agreement could take place thro' the former, the interposition of the latter is doubly wrong:

      4. The tendency of the practice, to narrow the recommendation to the standard of the predominant sect. The Ist proclamation of Genl Washington dated Jany 1. 1795 recommending a day of thanksgiving, embraced all who believed in a supreme ruler of the Universe." That of Mr. Adams called for a Xn worship. Many private letters reproached the Proclamations issued by J. M. for using general terms, used in that of Presit W--n; and some of them for not inserting particulars according with the faith of certain Xn sects. The practice if not strictly guarded naturally terminates in a conformity to the creed of the majority and a single sect, if amounting to a majority.

      5. The last & not the least objection is the liability of the practice to a subserviency to political views; to the scandal of religion, as well as the increase of party animosities. Candid or incautious politicians will not always disown such views. In truth it is difficult to frame such a religious Proclamation generally suggested by a political State of things, without referring to them in terms having some bearing on party questions. The Proclamation of Pres: W. which was issued just after the suppression of the Insurrection in Penna and at a time when the public mind was divided on several topics, was so construed by many. Of this the Secretary of State himself, E. Randolph seems to have had an anticipation.

      The original draught of that Instrument filed in the Dept. of State in the hand writing of Mr Hamilton the Secretary of the Treasury. It appears that several slight alterations only had been made at the suggestion of the Secretary of State; and in a marginal note in his hand, it is remarked that "In short this proclamation ought to savour as much as possible of religion, & not too much of having a political object." In a subjoined note in the hand of Mr. Hamilton, this remark is answered by the counter-remark that "A proclamation of a Government which is a national act, naturally embraces objects which are political" so naturally, is the idea of policy associated with religion, whatever be the mode or the occasion, when a function of the latter is assumed by those in power.

      During the administration of Mr Jefferson no religious proclamation was issued. It being understood that his successor was disinclined to such interpositions of the Executive and by some supposed moreover that they might originate with more propriety with the Legislative Body, a resolution was passed requesting him to issue a proclamation.

      It was thought not proper to refuse a compliance altogether; but a form & language were employed, which were meant to deaden as much as possible any claim of political right to enjoin religious observances by resting these expressly on the voluntary compliance of individuals, and even by limiting the recommendation to such as wished simultaneous as well as voluntary perf

    • allpurposeguru profile imageAUTHOR

      David Guion 

      8 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks, Peg. I don't think the framers of the Constitution anticipated having judges legislating by decree and spineless legislatures not challenging them over it.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      8 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Good point about protesting holidays for limiting the rights of those excluded. It seems strange in a country where majority rules that the minority or one individual can take away the rights of the majority, for example with school prayer. We prayed in school and Pledged Allegience to the Flag.

      Thanks for the thought provoking, informative and well written hub.

    • allpurposeguru profile imageAUTHOR

      David Guion 

      8 years ago from North Carolina

      Thanks, James. That's high praise, considering it comes from one of the real stars on HubPages. I enjoy your writing, too.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      8 years ago from Chicago

      Thank you for this erudite article. I could not agree with you more. I really enjoy your writing.

    • allpurposeguru profile imageAUTHOR

      David Guion 

      8 years ago from North Carolina

      Thank you Joni Douglas, itakins, and Cari Jean. Judge Crabb's decision is indeed only part of a larger problem that has been developing for years. It appears that some elements of society don't want people to know much about American history or the values that have made us unique in the world. They try to make over public discourse in their own image in the name of "freedom" and scream about right-wing conspiracies any time anyone suggests that views other than theirs deserve respect.

    • Cari Jean profile image

      Cari Jean 

      8 years ago from Bismarck, ND

      Great hub and explains very well what the Constitution actually says and means regarding the whole separation of church and state issue. Thanks for this important information.

    • itakins profile image


      8 years ago from Irl

      Now I read that they are also not permitting elderly people who are provided with funded lunches,to say a prayer before their meals!! The last bastion of control I fear.

    • Joni Douglas profile image

      Joni Douglas 

      8 years ago

      They can rule against a National Day of Prayer for Christians, yet our president can honor a muslim day of prayer at the White House. Something is wrong with this picture.


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