National Day of Prayer


If you didn’t know, today is the National Day of Prayer. This will be the eighth consecutive year I have participated in a ceremonial prayer service in front of City Hall in Ocean Springs. I always have mixed feelings: the negative being the showiness of praying on a street corner to be seen by men, given Jesus’s comments on that sort of thing, the positive being that this is one of those rare opportunities for a CofC man such as myself to play with the other boys and girls.

(It’s also a bit interesting that, although this is a day set aside for people of ALL faiths to join together and pray, I’ve yet to see anyone participate in these events outside the Christian faith [though not too strange because I don’t know of any “church” in Ocean Springs that isn’t Christian in one flavor or another], and when I went to the website for the National Day of Prayer Task Force, it appears to be a “Christians only” task force [might not be, but that’s just the appearance from my first glance].)

Every year there is a national chairman for this event, and in 2006, it is Dr. Henry Blackabay. As usual, the chairman offers a “prayer for the nation.” It seems a bit odd to critique a prayer, but since this particular prayer is offered for critiquing, I thought it would be interesting for all of us to have a go at it.

Here’s the prayer for the nation in 2006. I’m interested in your comments…

2006 Prayer for the Nation
Dr. Henry Blackaby

Oh Heavenly Father, You have made Yourself known to us as a nation by Your mighty works throughout our history. From the beginning, You have been with us through many wars and conflicts; Your right arm has saved us. We have been amazingly and graciously blessed.

Today, we confess our sin of not responding to Your right to rule in our lives and our nation. Too often we have despised and rejected Your will while imposing our own, and we are now facing the consequences of our disobedience. Draw us back to Yourself that we may return to Your ways once again. Without You we can do nothing. You have promised that if we honor You, You will once again honor this great nation.

That is our fervent prayer.

For Your honor and glory we pray,


34 Responses to “National Day of Prayer”

  1. Sandi Says:

    Sorry to be my stereotypically liberal self, but if government officials are participating in this it absolutely violates the Establishment Clause. Nothing gets under my skin like government endorsement of religion. This is why I had to leave Americans United — it was way too emotional a job for me because I feel so strongly about this issue. Dealing with race and sex discrimination is so much easier.

  2. Joe Longhorn Says:

    So you are basically saying that the President (or any “government officials”) shouldn’t even go to Church on Sundays while they are in office. By attending services at a particular Church, they are implicitly “endorsing” that religion, and due to their position, everything they do is in the public eye.

    Methinks we doth invoke the “Establishment Clause” too freely.

  3. Sandi Says:

    Interpreting the Establishment Clause always involves a lot of balancing and line-drawing. In that view, and in the view that endorsement is key, I am in former Justice O’Connor’s camp. I would probably not interpret endorsement quite as narrowly as she did, but I think that her approach is wise and cuts to the heart of the problem with government endorsement of religion — to paraphrase her, it sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders and disfavored members of the community, and sends a message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the community. I think a lot of Christians tend not to get it because they’re so used to being in the vast numerical majority. But all one has to do is put herself in the shoes of another, or mentally reverse the roles: if you as a Christian were living in a place where everyone was Muslim, wouldn’t it feel like a much more welcoming place if the government did not endorse Islam?

    And in answer to your specific question, I believe that there is a body of jurisprudence with respect to the distinction between a government official’s private speech and that undertaken on behalf of the government. Pursuant to that, attending your personal church service as a private citizen is definitely okay. Where to draw other lines — like a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast or something — is done on a case by case basis.

  4. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Theologically, the prayer is pretty atrocious, IMO.

  5. Joe Longhorn Says:

    Once again, I find myself in agreement with JU.

  6. Sandi Says:

    And I should also say that if anyone ever gets to claim expertise on anything, I should definitely be awarded that title here. I worked for the ACLU for both summers in law school and for two years after law school and dealt with a lot of church-state issues there, and then spent two years with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. So I’m pretty familiar with what does and does not comply with it, as well as the popular misconceptions about it among the general public — and there are many of them, cutting both ways.

  7. Joe Longhorn Says:

    I’ll gladly stipulate your expertise on one side of this issue.

  8. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Once again, I find myself in agreement with JU.

    Your regularly scheduled programming will now be interrupted by the Rapture.

  9. Sandi Says:

    Joe, what I meant was that I know what the courts have said on various EC issues. It doesn’t matter what “side” you’re on, you still have to know the law and follow it when bringing cases and writing briefs. It would be absurd to bring cases where the courts have consistently ruled the other way on a particular issue. You quickly learn to separate your policy preferences from your work as a litigator because you have to work within the confines of how things are, not how you would like them to be. Policy preferences are for legislators.

  10. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Policy preferences are for legislators.

    And citizens. But not attorneys in their advice to clients. (I actually got in a wee bit of trouble during my summer as a legal intern for writing advisory briefs too cognizant of current law to suit my employer, but that’s neither here nor there.)

  11. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Sandi & all…

    After very little snooping on the home page of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, here’s a little statement for everyone to comment on:

    Official Policy Statement on Participation of “Non-Judeo-Christian” groups in the National Day of Prayer:

    The National Day of Prayer was created by an act of Congress and is, therefore, intended for all peoples of faith to pray to the God of their understanding

    However, our expression of that involvement is specifically limited to the Judeo-Christian heritage and those who share that conviction as expressed in the Lausanne Covenant. If peoples of other faiths wish to celebrate in their own tradition, they are welcome to do so, but we must be true to those who have supported this effort and volunteered their time to promote it. National Day of Prayer is not a function of the government and, therefore, a particular expression of it can be defined by those who choose to organize it. This is not a church/state issue.

    Back to Al here: What do you scholarly guys make of that?

  12. juvenal_urbino Says:

    The National Day of Prayer was created by an act of Congress . . . National Day of Prayer is not a function of the government . . . This is not a church/state issue.

    Okay, that made me giggle uncontrollably for several seconds. Seriously.

  13. juvenal_urbino Says:

    However, our expression of that involvement is specifically limited to the Judeo-Christian heritage . . .

    Much hinges on who “our” refers to. Is the National Day of Prayer Task Force an entity created by the [apparently non-governmental] act of Congress, or is it just a voluntary organization trying to sound official?

  14. Sandi Says:

    Right, it depends on whether the National Day of Prayer Task Force is a government entity or not. I would guess no … probably the Act of Congress was just one of those pronouncement things designating the date as the National Day of Prayer. Whether that creates a sufficient nexus to the government to implicate the Establishment Clause, I am not certain but would guess under the current state of the law the answer is no. I’m sure there have been cases on the issue but I can’t recall any off the top of my head.

    What I was referring to earlier, though, was the specific ceremony you mentioned at City Hall — if for example the mayor participates in his capacity as mayor in an exclusionary ceremony, I think that creates an improper appearance that the city of Ocean Springs endorses Christianity and that all other citizens are unwelcome or disfavored. Courts tend to give prayer a pass if it is ecumenical because of the unfortunate 1983 Supreme Court decision in Marsh v. Chambers, which was about prayer before the Nebraska legislature.

  15. Duane McCrory Says:

    I’ll grant Sandi the legal expertise on this issue, but as a military chaplain will take upon myself the expertise of being the one who walks this tightrope very frequently.

    Sandi, I’d be curious to know about the cases you’ve been involved in with ACLU that deal with the “Free Exercise” clause.

    The tightrope of which I speak, of course, is the balance between respecting the “Establishment Clause” and the “Free Exercise Clause.” Quite possibly some of you might not think there should be a position in the military such as the one I fill as a chaplain. We are well aware of both clauses and do our absolute best to avoid appearance of violating the “Establishment Clause” while also helping ensure the rights of all military to practice their own faith under the “Free Exercise” clause. The primary argument for our existence is providing an opportunity for people to freely exercise their faith. In a deployed location, this is essential. There are even many locations here in the U.S. where, were it not for Roman Catholic chaplains, those of that faith would not have any opportunity to practice their faith.

    That was probably too long of a comment on that issue, but one other point I would bring up regards the prayer, and is in the form of a rhetorical question.

    Is there any public prayer that could be worded in such a way that would make everyone happy?

    You know the answer to that.

  16. Joe Longhorn Says:


    I think it’s the latter. Although it’s a little hard to tell from the website. They sure like to give the impression that this is a government sanctioned organization. I don’t really understand the benefit of that.

    The National Day of Prayer was created by an act of congress, and it looks like this organization just grabbed on and held tight.

  17. juvenal_urbino Says:

    If it’s not an official body but a voluntary organization masquerading as one (good grief), I think the Task Force is in the clear. OTOH, what would create an issue would be if a city council or state goverment, etc., gave this Task Force some kind of preferential treatment over other groups in observing the Nat’l Day of Prayer. (For example, letting the Task Force use the courthouse steps for their observances, but not allowing others to do so.)

    All that said, it’ll surprise no one that I have rather large problems with Congress declaring anything about prayer.

    Is there any public prayer that could be worded in such a way that would make everyone happy?

    As you said, Duane, the question kind of answers itself. Even a moment of silence wouldn’t be completely nonsectarian. Moments of silence work just fine for Christian prayer, but are a bit problematic for, say, Muslims.

    BTW, Duane, one of the advisory briefs I wrote was for military chaplains. Unfortunately, that was 10 yrs. ago and I’ve pretty much forgotten everything I knew on the subject. IIRC, the hot issue at the time was whether chaplains could wear religiously prescribed garb in violation of military requirements regarding uniforms. I hope Sandi will be more help to you.

  18. Al Sturgeon Says:

    BTW Sandi (and I’m REALLY enjoying saying this, since I’m your friend and all, and you’ll see the HUGE tongue-in-cheek fun I’m having), the mayor of Ocean Springs is a “her” and not a “him.” You shouldn’t assume, you know…

    The mayor reads an official proclamation on behalf of the city here. From the little bit I know of her, I would be surprised if she wouldn’t grant permission to any Muslim desire to have a ceremonial prayer observance in front of the courthouse should that come up – even though the crap would start flying pretty quick in these parts.

    I still don’t understand where this “task force” comes from…

  19. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Ah, I’m learning…

    Also on the website:

    Who is behind the NDP Task Force?

    The Chairman is Mrs. Shirley Dobson, who has held the position since 1991. Mrs. Dobson volunteers her time and does not receive a salary. The NDP Task Force consists of a full-time staff and a network of thousands of grassroots volunteers nationwide. Prior to Mrs. Dobson’s involvement, the Task Force was led by Mrs. Vonette Bright, wife of former Campus Crusade for Christ president and founder Bill Bright.

    Is the Task Force affiliated with Focus on the Family?

    No. Though Mrs. Dobson is married to Focus on the Family board chairman and founder Dr. James Dobson, the NDP Task Force is a separate organization. It is housed in the Focus on the Family headquarters for convenience, so long as Mrs. Dobson remains the Chairman. Its business affairs are separate and Focus on the Family is compensated for services rendered. However, between 1990 and 1993, Focus on the Family did provide grants in support of the NDP Task Force. Since then, the Task Force has been completely self-supported.

    Oh yeah, did everyone see the “National Day of Prayer” race car set to run in NASCAR’s Talladega?

    I giggled on that one.

  20. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Dobson. Yeah, that pretty much explains both the Task Force and their theologically bereft prayer. It really is a remarkable piece of work. It’s not even Christian, even though the Task Force quite intentionally is. I mean, it’s just a plea to a generic national deity to forgive/bless the pleader’s nation. Aside from not having the name of a specific national deity in it, it could be lifted from the writings of any ancient pagan culture.

    Oh Marduk, You have made Yourself known to us as a nation by Your mighty works throughout our history. From the beginning, You have been with us through many wars and conflicts; Your right arm has saved us. We have been amazingly and graciously blessed.


    Oh Isis, You have made Yourself known to us as a nation by Your mighty works throughout our history. . .

    After all these millenia of human thought, have we really not progressed so much as an inch from the worldview of ancient Sumeria? It really is astonishing. And disheartening.

    Hadn’t heard about the race car, Al. My favorite part was:

    It is housed in the Focus on the Family headquarters for convenience, so long as Mrs. Dobson remains the Chairman.

    . . . which has the ring of an offer that can’t be refused.

  21. Sandi Says:

    Hi Duane,

    The presence of chaplains in settings such as military installations and prisons is not violative of the Establishment Clause, and mandated by the Free Exercise Clause because folks in these types of situations don’t have regular access to clergy because of the government.

    There are definite issues with administration of such programs — and this arises fairly often — because funding limitations and numerical realities generally dictate that the chaplains are Christian and so inmates of most other faiths do not have the same access to a chaplain. Courts have ruled that this is okay as long as no undue burden is placed on people of other faiths in practicing their religion. Chaplain situations can also be abused, i.e. when chaplains proselytize, which is a no-no — they are there to provide access for those who wish to exercise their religion, not to convert people. The issue of free exercise in prisons is HUGE — tons of litigation on that one, but prison is a special context because of security issues so courts tend to grant prisons a lot of discretion. There have been similar free exercise challenges with respect to the military; I remember one case in particular where the court upheld the military’s ban on yarmulkes.

    A lot of the balancing I was talking about before is the balance between the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. To some degree, they are in tension with each other, so you have to tread carefully. On the other hand, though, it is interesting to note that it was the Rehnquist Court that severely limited the scope of the Free Exercise clause in 1990. That case was about peyote (or maybe not peyote, but some drug that was otherwise illegal but used in Native American religious rituals). But that precedent has served to limit free exercise to an extent that a lot of right-wing groups don’t like, which led to the passage first of RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, struck down by the Supremes in 1997(?)) and then the more narrowly tailored RLUIPA (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which addresses zoning issues that inhibit churches and also the free exercise in prison issue I mentioned above).

  22. juvenal_urbino Says:

    That case was about peyote (or maybe not peyote, but some drug that was otherwise illegal but used in Native American religious rituals).

    Yep, peyote. Smith is one of my favorite Scalia opinions, Sandi. I especially liked the part where, when asked if he would uphold a similar principal in a case where Lutherans were forbidden from using real wine in their Eucharist because of Prohibition, he said no such case would ever come before him because Christians are too large and powerful a voting bloc to ever be so treated.

    Brilliant, that. Your rights are protected so long as you’re in the majority. Somebody tell me again what the Bill of Rights accomplishes?

  23. Sandi Says:

    Yes, that is definitely the biggest problem with Free Exercise jurisprudence from my vantage point — it is far more protective of Christians than of any other religion. Occasionally a minority religion gets tossed a bone, like in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah, where the Court ruled that the city could not pass a law against animal sacrifice that was targeted solely at a religious practice. But normally, minority religions get screwed and Christians are protected, like in Yoder, the case where the Court ruled that the Amish can have special permission to take their kids out of school before the legal age at which you can drop out.

    On the other hand, the equivalent of free exercise in the employment context is poorly protected by Title VII; courts have consistently ruled against folks who want to have religious holidays off from work or who don’t want to work on Sundays, for example.

    I think for me, Scalia’s dissent in the VMI case really stands out, although he has written so many gems it’s hard to pick just one. 🙂

  24. juvenal_urbino Says:

    But normally, minority religions get screwed and Christians are protected, like in Yoder

    I think Yoder and the Amish flag salute cases are, in effect, minority religion cases. They were minority Christians, certainly, getting run over by other Christians via the machinery of local government, but still, they were an insular minority.

    The Jehovah’s Witness cases are similarly situated, though whether they are or aren’t a sect of Christianity is debated. And, while I’m at it, I’ll go all the way back and throw in Reynolds, too. (A 19th-century case on the practice of polygamy among the Mormons, for those of you scoring at home.)

  25. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Sandi — Has the trend continued of arguing Free Exercise cases as Free Speech cases? I’ve not kept up in recent years.

  26. Sandi Says:

    In answer to your other question, Duane, there isn’t a public prayer that would make everyone happy because prayer is by its nature specific to each religion (of those that have prayer as one of their practices, that is). And for nonbelievers, obviously, having a prayer at all sends a message of exclusion.

    Growing up in the church, I remember learning that public prayer was inferior somehow, less authentic than private prayer. Sort of a sloppy substitute for the real thing. Having been grounded in that view, I came to the conclusion in high school that people who were so all-fired concerned about having a public prayer at a graduation or what have you just wanted to have their religious views ratified in a public forum rather than really wanting to offer God thanks for anything. I have seen nothing since that has convinced me otherwise.

    And I didn’t address your question about the ACLU — it does take a lot of free exercise cases. Court TV is doing a series with them called “The ACLU Freedom Files.” The first episode was about religious freedom, and it chronicled some of their free exercise cases. When I was there (in both CT and MS), I did a lot of research on the prison context, mostly because a lot of prisoners write to the ACLU.

    But it’s the Establishment Clause cases that bring out people’s worst tendencies. The ACLU of Mississippi brought a case in the northern part of the state regarding several issues, including Bible classes in school and daily scripture readings over the intercom, and the backlash against the family — kids and parents alike — was incredibly vitriolic. People boycotted the store where the mother worked, wouldn’t let their kids play with the children, killed some of their animals, made death threats and harassing phone calls constantly … it was horrible. And later, after the conclusion of the lawsuit, one of the little girls in this family was in an accident in which she lost her hand — and people from the town told her mother that it was God’s punishment for participating in the lawsuit. And this family who sued was Christian!! They just wanted to be able to teach their own kids what to believe rather than the school indoctrinating them.

    The current Executive Director of the ACLU of Oklahoma is a former plaintiff in an Establishment Clause case concerning a school issue; her house was burned down in retaliation. Oftentimes, plaintiffs have to proceed anonymously in these cases — and witch hunts ensue to try to identify them. Darla Kaye Wynne, a Wiccan woman in South Carolina who was a plaintiff in a legislative prayer case, has had several pets killed by townspeople and had people drive by and shoot bullets through her windows. I wish that there was more publicity about things like this, because I think a lot of people don’t know how vicious it gets in small towns when someone dares to challenge the “everybody is a Christian and if they’re not, who cares about them” mentality. People who stand up for their rights quite reasonably fear for their lives. That’s part of the reason I feel so strongly.

  27. Sandi Says:

    Arguing Free Exercise as Free Speech cases — yes, as far as I know, that’s the tack that is often taken, at least in cases that clearly involve speech — i.e., Rosenberger, the UVA case about the Christian group that was denied university money; Pinette, the case about the KKK putting up a cross on the grounds of the Ohio state capitol; and others. There’s a whole line of cases going on right now about whether student groups can use religion as a justification for exclusions that otherwise violated university antidiscrimination policies and still retain their official status. This is a huge issue in the faith-based initiative and religious employer context too — is religion an adequate justification for otherwise violating antidiscrimination laws? It will be fascinating to see where the courts end up on this. I have my view obviously, but I am not too optimistic.

    And this speech/religion thing was always an interesting issue to think about conceptually: if the Establishment Clause prohibits government endorsement of religion over irreligion (and there are opinions going both ways on this), then granting religious speech any heightened protection over non-religious speech violates the Establishment Clause. So as I recall, Free Exercise and Free Speech are pretty much coextensive when it comes to speech issues. Of course, there are those who, like Scalia, think that government absolutely can prefer religion over non-religion in any circumstance. In the short run, that view will probably win the day.

    I guess I’m officially babbling now, and all the non-lawyers’ eyes have glazed over. This is really fascinating stuff to me, though. 🙂

  28. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Rosenberger and Pinette were where things stood back in my day as a legal type. Didn’t know if that line had continued, though. Thanks.

  29. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Don’t want to let this get lost in the legal shuffle: kudos to Al for playing with the other kids. Like Habitat, it’s an opening to relevancy.

    (Just be careful not to bid anybody godspeed while you’re there, Brother. If you do — you know, by accident or something — count to ten as fast as you can while walking backward in a circle. That cancels a runaway godspeed.)

  30. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Thanks, Juvenal.

  31. Sandi Says:

    Actually, I think since Al is not a government official, he’s allowed to bid godspeed to anyone he wants. 🙂

  32. juvenal_urbino Says:


  33. Capt MidKnight Says:

    All this talk about the Establishment Clause vs the Free Exercise Clause – at least I know enough to stay out of the way when the heavy hitters in the legal arena weigh in. However, one thing Sandi said caught my interest. As someone who probably holds markedly different views on prayer in general, I still found myself on the same side with Sandi on this quote:

    “… that people who were so all-fired concerned about having a public prayer at a graduation or what have you just wanted to have their religious views ratified in a public forum rather than really wanting to offer God thanks for anything.”

    I might add that, many times, they seem more interested in asserting what they see as their “rights” than anything else.
    Personally, questions as to whether a parent or school principal gets to ask God publically to help one group of teenagers prevail over another in some athletic contest, while limiting the number of broken bones in the process, or whether some judge or sheriff or JP gets to have a copy of the Ten Commandments in their office don’t interest me much. What some court or legislature gives today, they can take away tomorrow. Laws passed by congress and rulings by courts only tell you what is legal, not necessarily what is true. Some Christians are passionate about such battles, but they have always made me a little uncomfortable. Even if the Church “wins,” I’m not sure what it accomplishes.

    BTW, I had a chance to stop by the “Mother Church” of Desperate Houseflies earlier today, on my way back to Tennessee, and was granted an audience with the Grand Pooh Bah his own self.

    Keep up the good work.

  34. Al Sturgeon Says:

    And it was so good to see El Capitan on Cinco de Mayo!!!

    Grand Pooh Bah

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