In the eternal scheme of things, it’s no coincidence that today’s National Day of Prayer dawned four days after intrepid U.S. Navy SEALs rid the world of Osama bin Laden.
As Heritage’s Chuck Donovan writes this morning for NRO, the White House on Friday evening issued President Obama’s proclamation for today’s observance within hours of setting in motion the special forces raid of the al-Qaida leader’s secret compound in Pakistan.
In hindsight, Donovan notes, Obama’s written words on the 60th annual observance resound with new meaning as the president headed to Ground Zero in New York today to honor those who died there:
Let us be thankful for the liberty that allows people of all faiths to worship or not worship according to the dictates of their conscience, and let us be thankful for the many other freedoms and blessings that we often take for granted.
“Let us pray for the men and women of our armed forces and the many selfless sacrifices they and their families make on behalf of our nation. Let us pray for the police officers, firefighters and other first responders who put themselves in harm’s way every day to protect their fellow citizens. And let us ask God for the sustenance and guidance for all of us to meet the great challenges we face as a nation.”
However, if opponents of the National Day of Prayer had won the day in court, adds Donovan, senior research fellow in Heritage’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, President Obama would have been enjoined from urging Americans to make time to “ask God for sustenance and guidance.”
A Wisconsin group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed suit against the United States, seeking to block a presidential proclamation marking the National Day of Prayer, issued since Congress passed legislation in 1952 making the observance official. This presidential call is really an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the national government, the suit argued.
A year ago, a federal district judge agreed and barred Obama from issuing a proclamation this year. The administration appealed, and on April 14, a three-judge appeals panel overturned that ruling – dismissing the suit and allowing the proclamation by Obama that came Friday evening:
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. … Let us remember in our thoughts and prayers those who have been affected by natural disasters at home and abroad in recent months, as well as those working tirelessly to render assistance. And, at a time when many around the world face uncertainty and unrest, but also hold resurgent hope for freedom and justice, let our prayers be with men and women everywhere who seek peace, human dignity and the same rights we treasure here in America.”
The appeals court’s ruling turned on legal standing. Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote that the Freedom from Religion Foundation didn’t demonstrate an injury. A presidential proclamation of a National Day of Prayer isn’t a command, he said, “any more than a person would be obliged to hand over his money if the president asked all citizens to support the Red Cross or other charities.”
Like presidents before him, Obama has underscored that today’s national observance not only is voluntary but all-inclusive. “I call upon the citizens of our nation to pray, or otherwise give thanks,” Obama wrote last year, “in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings.”
Donovan, a former White House staffer who helped prepare proclamations for President Reagan during his eight years in office, recalls that a similar spirit was evident in the one Reagan issued in 1988. “I call upon the citizens of our great nation to gather together on that day in homes and places of worship to pray,” Reagan wrote, “each after his or her own manner, for unity in the hearts of all mankind.”
Jennifer A. Marshall, director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, explores the underpinnings of religious freedom in America in a recent pamphlet in Heritage’s “Understanding America” series.
Our vision of religious liberty must be robust. Attempts to relegate religion to private life or to prevent religious institutions from conducting their business according to their beliefs threaten this fundamental freedom. Religious individuals and institutions should be free to exercise their religious belief within their private spheres as well as to engage publicly on the basis of religion. Believers should be free to persuade others to embrace their beliefs. Individuals should be able to leave or change their religion without fear of reprisal, and all should have the right to protection under the rule of law regardless of belief.”
From George Washington to Barack Obama, as Donovan notes in NRO, most American presidents have understood this:
Time and again, presidents remind us of both the importance of our heritage of religious liberty and the value of religion itself. They have recognized and encouraged the nation, in times of war and peace, of feast and famine, to treasure not freedom from religion but freedom of and for religion.”