The National Day of Prayer inappropriately entangles religion and government and undercuts authentic expressions of faith, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"The National Day of Prayer is to authentic religion what 'Mr. Personality' is to romance: a sham and a poor imitation of the real thing," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director. "I don't look to government officials to tell me when and how to pray, and I don 't think most other Americans do either.
"The Constitution gives Congress and the president no authority whatsoever over religion, and they ought to stick to governmental concerns," said Lynn, who is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
Congress approved a federal law in 1952 setting aside an annual National Day of Prayer. In 1988, Congress set the date as the first Thursday in May. Each year, the president issues a proclamation urging Americans to participate in the observance.
AU charges that the event has been co-opted by Religious Right groups in recent years and is increasingly being used to send the message that the United States is an officially "Christian nation."
Most NDP events are coordinated by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a group headed by Shirley Dobson, wife of controversial Religious Right radio broadcaster James Dobson. The Task Force, which limits its events to "Judeo-Christian" worship, operates from Dobson's Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Focus on the Family.
Although a private group, the Task Force has achieved quasi-official status. The Dobsons and their Religious Right allies have visited the Bush White House for the past two years to observe the prayer day.
The Religious Right, AU's Lynn asserts, has taken over the event to promote the fundamentalist Christian political agenda, including strident opposition to church-state separation.
In materials promoting this year's event, Mrs. Dobson criticized court rulings against government display of the Ten Commandments and use of the phrase "one nation under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
"We are in desperate need of the Lord.... It is imperative to understand that our survival and well-being as a nation rests solely on our willingness to live according to His purpose," Dobson said in press statement.
Speaking April 28 on Fox News Network's "Hannity & Colmes," Dobson suggested that God allowed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"The Bible says that the shields of the earth belong to the Lord and whether we recognize it or not, I believe that He lifted that shield on 9/11 and let us look evil right in the face," she said.
AU's Lynn said these activities demonstrate that James Madison was right about officially proclaimed days of prayer. Madison, widely acknowledged as the Father of the Constitution, said such observances "nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion."
Wrote Madison in his "Detached Memoranda," "The members of a government as such can in no sense be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their constituents in their religious capacities.... The practice if not strictly guarded naturally terminates in a conformity to the creed of the majority."
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.