Much public praying will be going on Thursday in Modesto in continuance of Pray Modesto and fulfillment of the National Day of Prayer, and secularists are taking annual issue with that.
The praying began Sunday with Pray Modesto, which will last through to Saturday at various one hour gatherings in Modesto. This week was claimed for prayer in a proclamation by Modesto’s former mayor Jim Ridenour. The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote a letter to Mayor Ridenour in April of 2010 urging him “to refrain from issuing future proclamations designating weeks or days of prayer” and “to consider your status as the highest elected official in Modesto and the importance of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state before you agree to attend any future religious functions in your community in your official capacity as mayor”. Ridenour is still issuing proclamations beyond the end of his service as Mayor.
May 3 marks the sixtieth year we the people have observed a National Day of Prayer, but some U.S. citizens who guard the wall between church and state have been calling for a replacement National Day of Reason since 2003. This year, secularist citizens are pointing out that June marks the fiftieth anniversary of Engel versus Vitale, the landmark United States Supreme Court case that made it unconstitutional for government employees to mandate prayer. Yes, that case only applied to prayer in public school, but secularists are calling to generalize it to any public gathering funded by government, including the National Day of Prayer, which they would like to end completely.
The National Day of Prayer began in 1952 when Congress passed a joint resolution signed into law by President Truman to observe a national day of prayer. President Reagan signed an amended version of that law in 1988 which set the official day as the first Thursday of every May. Read more about this national day’s history on National Day of Prayer’s website. Every year the President signs a proclamation making that year’s National Day of Prayer official. President Obama’s proclamation this year can be read here.
Secularists started calling for a National Day of Reason in 2003 when the American Humanist Association and the Washington Area Secular Humanists launched a website calling all from “the community of reason” to celebrate inclusive reason on the same day as the exclusive National Day of Prayer. They argue on their About page that the National Day of Prayer violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution as it sets aside tax dollars to support religion.
50 years since Engel v. Vitale
Fifty years ago in June, the historic Supreme Court case, Engel v. Vitale recognized the unconstitutionality of the organization by federal employees of prayer in publically funded schools.
Justice Black argued that requiring recitation of a prayer is a religious activity, the prayer was composed by government officials who were part of a government program, and that violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, breaching the wall of separation between Church and State, erected to protect against this very thing from occurring.
Black pointed out the prayer clearly ‘established’ religious beliefs, and even if no students were required to recite it, the government’s support of it is forbidden by the Establishment Clause. Black also noted that preventing government officials from promoting this prayer does not violate the Free Exercise Clause as such things as prayer should be left to the people. Black clarified that, though the prayer may be brief, James Madison well said “It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties…”.
Justice Douglas aligned himself with Justice Black, but did not think the prayer “established” religion, giving a similar example which is permitted. But instead of using the Establishment Clause, he said “By reason of the First Amendment government is commanded ‘to have no interest in theology or ritual’ for on those matters ‘government must be neutral.’” Justice Stewart voted against Black and Douglas, agreeing with Douglas that letting those who want to say a prayer, say it, does not ‘establish’ a religion. However, he went further than Douglas and insisted that to prohibit the prayer is to deny the children “the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our nation”. He used the same example Justice Douglas used of a similar example which is permitted, as well as others.
Not all secularists are nonreligious. Many are Christians who respect the wall between church and state because they do not want anyone to feel that religion is being forced upon them and they do not want anyone to feel marginalized by a government that is supposed to represent them. They empathize with atheists and skeptics when they imagine what it would be like to live in a predominantly Muslim society whose government endorses the rituals of Islam. They consider government establishment of religion to be a violation of the Golden Rule. They think that any public prayer that is so diluted as to be suitably labeled “ceremonial deism” is an offense to those who worship God with integrity, and a violation of the free expression of those who do not worship any being via prayer.
However, those secularists who are religious are not likely to join forces to promote a National Day of Reason. Those in the self-proclaimed “community of reason” exclude those in “the community of faith” as they pit faith against reason. This can be seen at the March 24th Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. The “community of reason” has far to go in offering an inclusive alternative to the National Day of Prayer.
Also see: Turlock City Council in struggle between free expression and establishment of religion