Official government acts should not urge citizens to engage in religious exercise

Contact: Jeff Huett | Phone: 202-544-4226
Cherilyn Crowe | Phone: 202-544-4226

May 4, 2011

Congress’ official designation and the president’s proclamation of a National Day of Prayer is misguided and unnecessary, says a Washington, D.C.-based church-state organization. A recent court decision said the law calling for the day of prayer cannot be challenged in court, but an official religious declaration by the government is still “unwise,” according to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

“The government shouldn’t be in the business of telling the American people what, where or when to pray or even if they should pray,” said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

In the proclamation designating May 5 as this year’s National Day of Prayer, President Barack Obama stated, “I invite all citizens of our Nation, as their own faith or conscience directs them, to join me in giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy, and I ask all people of faith to join me in asking God for guidance, mercy, and protection for our Nation.” The proclamation also said, “let us ask God for the sustenance and guidance for all of us to meet the great challenges we face as a Nation.”

“There is nothing wrong with the American people getting together to pray on a designated day, even public officials,” Walker said. “In fact every day should be a day of national prayer.  

“The problem with the National Day of Prayer is that it is an official act of the government urging citizens to engage in a religious exercise,” Walker said.

In 1952, Congress passed a joint resolution, signed by President Harry Truman, setting aside one day a year for prayer. Since then, presidents have proclaimed a day for prayer observed each year on the first Thursday of May. On April 29, President Obama issued the proclamation of a National Day of Prayer to be held on May 5.

On April 14, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law calling for an annual National Day of Prayer cannot be challenged in court by private citizens because it imposes solely on the duties of the U.S. president. The ruling stated, “If anyone suffers injury … that person is the President, who is not complaining.” This decision overturned a 2010 lower court ruling that found the law unconstitutional.

As church-state controversies go, a congressional resolution and a presidential proclamation establishing a National Day of Prayer do not represent a cataclysmic breach in the wall of separation, according to the Baptist Joint Committee. “There is little if any coercion of anyone’s conscience, and most Americans are unaware of the occasion,” said K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee.

“But actual coercion has never been the standard for judging whether government has overstepped its bounds in promoting religion. Even though the National Day of Prayer was not held to be unconstitutional, it is certainly unwise,” Hollman said.


The Baptist Joint Committee is a 75-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty organization that works to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, bringing a uniquely Baptist witness to the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government.