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State and federal governments should avoid the realm of prayer

The freedom to practice—or not practice—a particular religion is one of the privileges we enjoy in the United States. We can gather at churches, synagogues, mosques or even parks to exercise our beliefs. We choose whether or not we pray or believe in God.

However, the government wants a say in all of this. In June 1952, President Truman signed a proclamation to establish a National Day of Prayer. In 1988, President Reagan amended the law to state that the day be observed the first Thursday in May—this year, it's May 5.

The debate heated up in October 2008, when the nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the National Day of Prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ...").

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled in the FFRF's favor in April 2010 when she deemed the law unconstitutional. However, this April, a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals three-judge panel ruled that the FFRF did not have standing to sue. The FFRF has asked for a review by the entire 7th Circuit.

There's been action at the state level as well. Gov. Jan Brewer proclaimed Jan. 17, 2010, as a "Day of Prayer for Arizona's Economy and State Budget." She also proclaimed an Arizona Day of Prayer in 2010 and 2011 to coincide with the national day. The FFRF sued the state, and Brewer exclaimed, "I intend to fight that lawsuit—vigorously—every step of the way!"

FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor believes it is not the government's business to tell us to pray or what to pray for. "They give you a laundry list of items to pray about. I think that is rather stupefying. ... They'll pick some timely topic or recent tragedy or overblown generality that everybody can bring up every year, and then they tell you to pray about it," Gaylor says.

In the late 1980s, a group called the National Day of Prayer Task Force began to step up efforts to "mobilize prayer in America." Gaylor points out that the task force writes a theme for the Day of Prayer and gives it to the president and governors; volunteers spread the message to local government officials. Oftentimes, the theme is a Bible verse. This year, the theme is: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

"The year that we sued over the National Day of Prayer, in 2008, George Bush had issued mostly their wording, and definitely their scripture theme and their Bible verse," recalls Gaylor. "The National Day of Prayer Task Force sounds like it's a government (body). It's private. ... When we filed our lawsuit in 2008 ... we felt there was this hand-and-glove relationship between the National Day of Prayer Task Force and the government. We sued the National Day of Prayer Task Force, President Bush and his press secretary."

Eventually, the suit against the task force was dropped, but the presidential suit stands, amended to include President Obama.

Take a look at the task force's 2011 theme video, and a troubling message appears. The first few frames of the video show a calm, peaceful day. Then, storm clouds start to gather, and the question flashes: "What if we didn't respond to the call for prayer?" More dark clouds. Shadows appear over people. Ominous music plays. Another question: "What if we didn't care?" Dark clouds hover, and lightning flashes above the Capitol building. Then people gather to pray. The skies begin to clear, and the sun appears. A final call: "Join with millions in prayer."

So am I to believe that if we don't pray on the National Day of Prayer, God will roll out the dark clouds and thunder? Yet everything will be A-OK if we do pray? This fear-based message, blending religious and government images, is disturbing and manipulative.

Moreover, the practice of state and federal days of prayer ignores many citizens. Day of Prayer themes are often Christian. To be truly "national," where are the passages from the Torah or the Quran? What about those who do not believe in God and prayer? We cannot disregard people simply because they are a minority voice.

Instead of a designated Day of Prayer that violates the separation of church and state while alienating many citizens, why not take a worldly approach? A voluntary celebration and acknowledgement of all citizens—religious, spiritual and nonbelievers—would build bridges instead of walls.

More by Irene Messina

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