National Day of Prayer: Get the Facts Straight

julie marsh
Photo by Aimee Giese
I wish I could say that I'm amazed by the amount of misinformation floating around regarding the National Day of Prayer. But since people still circulate email chain letters that swear Bill Gates is going to send every addressee $10,000, it's obvious most people prefer to believe the rumors than do their homework and apply a little critical thinking.

First of all, let's get the facts straight.


President Obama didn't cancel the National Day of Prayer. In 2009, he issued a proclamation declaring the first Thursday in May to be the National Day of Prayer. Unlike President Bush, he chose not to hold a Christian service at the White House on that day. He's expected to do the same this year.

President Obama didn't pray with Muslims at the White House. This assertion really baffles me. According to, a photo of the president at the Blue Mosque in Turkey (a NATO member country) on a state visit in 2009 was circulated in support of this claim. The photo shows the president removing his shoes outside the Blue Mosque -- just as my husband and I did when we visited the mosque in 2004. In this photo, President Obama isn't praying, and he's certainly not at the White House.

The Obama administration was the defendant in the Wisconsin lawsuit. The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit in US district court objecting to the proclamation. The judge, Barbara Crabb, ruled the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional. The Justice Department -- part of the Obama administration, just to be clear -- will appeal this decision, and President Obama plans to issue the proclamation nonetheless.

That's the truth. I'm sorry to disappoint all the rumor-mongering Facebook status-copiers and email-forwarding addicts.

Full disclosure: My husband renews our family membership to the Freedom From Religion Foundation each year, and we both voted for Obama. All that means is that I'm an atheist who couldn't stand to take the risk that Sarah Palin might occupy the Oval Office.

Do I think the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional? Technically speaking, yes. As Judge Crabb wrote: "The government can no more enact laws supporting a day of prayer than it can encourage citizens to fast during Ramadan, attend a synagogue, or practice magic."

But do I really care? Nah.

The language of the 2009 proclamation is benign, idealistic, and kind. It "calls upon" Americans to pray; it doesn't "compel" them. I'm also comforted by this line: "We continue to live in a Nation where people of all faiths can worship or not worship according to the dictates of their conscience." (Emphasis mine.)

The National Day of Prayer won't stop people from spreading unsubstantiated claims in support of a political or personal agenda. It won't convince people to get their facts straight before getting upset. It won't even elicit prayer from those of us who don't believe.

But perhaps the message of unity will bring us together on some level, if only for one day.

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