Last Thursday, May 2, 2013, I participated in a National Day of Prayer observance for the first time as a pastor. While I happen to like the ideal implied in the National Day of Prayer, a simple call for people to “turn to God,” I am frustrated by the fact it took an act of Congress in 1952 to make it up. So, we religious believers take a cue to set apart a special day for prayer from Congress? In light of appeals to religious liberty, guaranteed by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, I find following Congress’ lead on this ironic since the same First Amendment says in the establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …” In the simple and persuasive arguments of many experts, much more well-versed in Constitutional law than I am, that’s exactly what Congress did in 36 U.S.C. § 119, establish a religious practice: “The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.” In 2010 federal judge Barbara Crabb ruled the law unconstitutional, but a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit ruled the plaintiff, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, did not have standing, not exactly a secure victory for the law’s constitutionality. The panel said, “Hurt feelings differ from legal injury.”
My gut tells me court battles over the constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer may hinge on that three-letter word “may,” which contains a lot of wiggle room for religious freedom over-against the apparent establishment of religious practice of 36 U.S.C. § 119. The legal gulf that exists between “may” and “shall” is a distinction we United Methodists know well because our Book of Discipline frequently uses the the words “may” and “shall,” which carry entirely different weight within our church law.
The interesting wrinkle in our local observance of the National Day of Prayer in Plainfield was that our gathering was moved from the flagpole by Village Hall to a church because Liberty Counsel sued Plainfield in November 2012 for religious viewpoint discrimination. I believe Plainfield sought settlement out of court, but now the damages have been ramped up by Liberty Counsel (full text of lawsuit here).
Where should the Christian church be in the midst of these issues involving religious liberty? The separation of church and state? The ideals of religious pluralism?
What does the National Day of Prayer compel the church to do?
Thoughts for the itinerant church:
Move out? Be compelled and to compel other Christians to move outside the walls of church buildings to pray on the street corners and in the public square, regardless of what lawsuits may come? And regardless what politicians decide to do?
Move on? Get over the fact that the U.S. and its jurisprudence does enshrine a wall of separation between governments–federal to local–and church/religious institutions? Give up on trying to re-colonize American culture to some kind of idyllic Christian past?
Move over? Make room for everyone else to express their religious beliefs–atheists to Zoroastrians–and, perhaps, to even join them in new, creative ways of learning about each other and forging common ground in the midst of our disagreements?