National Day of Prayer

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National Day of Prayer
Observed byThe United States of America
DateFirst Thursday in May
2013 dateMay 2  (2013-05-02)
2014 dateMay 1  (2014-05-01)
2015 dateMay 7  (2015-05-07)
2016 dateMay 5  (2016-05-05)
Related toDay of Prayer
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National Day of Prayer
Observed byThe United States of America
DateFirst Thursday in May
2013 dateMay 2  (2013-05-02)
2014 dateMay 1  (2014-05-01)
2015 dateMay 7  (2015-05-07)
2016 dateMay 5  (2016-05-05)
Related toDay of Prayer

The National Day of Prayer (36 U.S.C. § 119)[1] is an annual day of observance held on the first Thursday of May, designated by the United States Congress, when people are asked "to turn to God in prayer and meditation". Each year since its inception, the president has signed a proclamation, encouraging all Americans to pray on this day.[2] The modern law formalizing its annual observance was enacted in 1952.

The constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer was unsuccessfully challenged in court by the Freedom From Religion Foundation after their first attempt was unanimously dismissed by a federal appellate court in April 2011.[3][4]


The National Day of Prayer is celebrated by Americans of many religions, including Christians of many denominations, including Protestants and Catholics, as well as Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, and Jews,[5] reflecting the demographics of the United States.[6] On the National Day of Prayer, many Americans assemble in prayer in front of courthouses, as well as in houses of worship, such as churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples.[7] Luncheons, picnics, and music performances revolving around praying for the nation are also popular observances.[8] Traditionally, the President of the United States issues an official National Day of Prayer proclamation each year as well.[9]


There were several national days of prayer before the day was made an official annual day of observance in 1952. Prior to the nation's founding, the Second Continental Congress issued a proclamation recommending "a day of publick [sic] humiliation, fasting, and prayer" be observed by the "English Colonies" on Thursday, July 20, 1775, "and to bless our rightful sovereign, King George the Third..."[10] A proclamation to this end was sent to every town in the colonies. In his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, George Washington acknowledged a second day of "fasting, humiliation and prayer" proclaimed by the Continental Congress to be held on Thursday, May 6, 1779. To enable his soldiers to observe the day, Washington ordered a one-day cessation of recreation and "unnecessary labor".[11] In March 1780, Congress announced a day of "fasting, humiliation and prayer" to be held on Wednesday, April 26, 1780.[12]

A Senate report states as part of the rationale for the law that prayers were conducted at the Constitutional Convention, which adopted the U.S. Constitution: “When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention encountered difficulties in the writing and formation of a Constitution for this Nation, prayer was suggested and became an established practice at succeeding sessions,” according to the report by the Committee on the Judiciary.[13]

On April 17, 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer must be declared by each following president at an appropriate date of his choice. In 1982 a conservative evangelical Christian organization called the "National Prayer Committee" was formed to coordinate and implement a fixed annual day of prayer for the purpose of organizing evangelical Christian prayer events with local, state, and federal government entities.[14] In his 1983 declaration, Ronald Reagan said, "From General Washington's struggle at Valley Forge to the present, this Nation has fervently sought and received divine guidance as it pursued the course of history. This occasion provides our Nation with an opportunity to further recognize the source of our blessings, and to seek His help for the challenges we face today and in the future."[15]

Sailors bow their heads in prayer during the National Day of Prayer. May 3, 2007.

In 1988, the law was amended so that the National Day of Prayer would be held on the first Thursday of May. Two stated intentions of the National Day of Prayer were that it would be a day when adherents of all great religions could unite in prayer and that it may one day bring renewed respect for God to all the peoples of the world.[15]

More recently, the idea of an annual National Day of Prayer was introduced by the Rev. Billy Graham, who suggested it in the midst of a several-weeks crusade in the nation’s capitol. Members of the House and Senate introduced a joint resolution for an annual 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."[16]

Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush each hosted special events for the day only once during their administrations, President Bill Clinton did not hold any such events during his time in office, George W. Bush held events on the National Day of Prayer in each year of his presidency, and President Barack Obama did not hold a formal event for the NDOP on May 7, 2009.[17]

Legal challenge[edit]

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued to challenge the designation of a National Day of Prayer. On October 3, 2008, the Wisconsin-based organization filed suit in a federal court in Madison, naming as defendants President George W. Bush; White House press secretary Dana Perino; Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle; and evangelist Dobson's wife, Shirley Dobson, in her capacity as chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force.[18] The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) provided defense for Shirley Dobson while government lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb to dismiss the case, arguing principally that the group has no legal standing to sue.[19]

On March 1, 2010 U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb stated that FFRF's lawsuit could proceed because the plaintiffs had shown that they suffered "concrete injury" that can potentially be remedied by judicial action. Judge Crabb stated about those supporting the federal law designating the National Day of Prayer, "adopting [the] defendants' view of standing would allow the government to have unrestrained authority to demean members of any religious group without legal consequence. The federal government could declare the 'National Day of Anti-Semitism' or even declare Christianity the official religion of the United States, but no one would have standing to sue because no one would have to 'pass by' those declarations."[20] On April 15, 2010, Judge Crabb ruled that the statute establishing the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional as it is "an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function."[21][22] However, Crabb stayed her ruling pending the completion of appeals.[23]

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a notice to appeal the ruling on April 22, 2010,[24] and on April 14, 2011 a three judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously overturned Crabb's decision. The panel ruled that FFRF did not have standing to sue because the National Day of Prayer had not caused them harm and stated that "a feeling of alienation cannot suffice as injury." The court further stated that "the President is free to make appeals to the public based on many kinds of grounds, including political and religious, and that such requests do not obligate citizens to comply and do not encroach on citizens' rights. The federal appeals court also cited Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, which referenced God seven times and prayer three times.[25] The court's decision was praised by the Family Research Council, which stated "The court is to be commended for rejecting even the idea of a federal lawsuit that demands this kind of religious expression be scrubbed from the public square".[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "36 U.S.C. § 119 : US Code – Section 119: National Day of Prayer". 
  2. ^ "History of the National Day of Prayer". Retrieved May 3, 2012. 
  3. ^ Legal challenge to National Day of Prayer thrown out, The Christian Science Monitor
  4. ^ Court Dismisses Challenge to National Day of Prayer, USA Today
  5. ^ "National Day of Prayer opportunity for Americans to seek God". Catholic News Agency. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
  6. ^ "National Day of Prayer Grows In Popularity". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
  7. ^ "National Day of Prayer Observed by Interfaith Roundtable of Kauai". Himalayan Academy. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
  8. ^ "National Day of Prayer events set in Augusta". The Augusta Chronicle. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
  9. ^ "Presidential Proclamation--National Day of Prayer". White House. Retrieved 2012-05-29. 
  10. ^ Bouton, Nathaniel (June 12, 1775). Provincial and State Papers. p. 545.  "Proclamation for a day of Fasting and Prayer"
  11. ^ The Writings of George Washington, from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799 14. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1779. p. 369. 
  12. ^ Pennsylvania Archives. Google Books. p. 131. Retrieved May 3, 2012. 
  13. ^ "FREEDOM FROM RELIGION FOUNDATION, INC., ANNE NICOL GAYLOR, ANNIE LAURIE GAYLOR, DAN BARKER, PAUL GAYLOR, PHYLLIS ROSE and JILL DEAN, Plaintiffs v. President BARACK OBAMA and White House Press Secretary ROBERT L. GIBBS, Defendants.". Western District of Wisconsin United States District Court. Retrieved 15 January 2013. 
  14. ^ "National Prayer Committee website – Mission, Values, Call and Covenant". Retrieved May 3, 2012. 
  15. ^ a b "Proclamation 5017 – National Day of Prayer, 1983". Retrieved May 3, 2012. 
  16. ^ "The Pluralism Project at Harvard University :America's National Day of Prayer (2006)". Retrieved May 3, 2012. 
  17. ^ National Day of Prayer Task Force Knocks Obama White House, U.S. News & World Report, April 15, 2010, Dan Gilgof
  18. ^ "Atheist group sues Bush over national prayer day". USA Today. October 6, 2008. Retrieved May 3, 2012. 
  19. ^ Freedom From Religion Foundation National Day of Prayer Case Proceeds
  20. ^ "Decision of FFRF v. President Obama and Shirley Dobson" (PDF). Retrieved May 3, 2012. 
  21. ^ "Opinion and Order". 
  22. ^ Gilgoff, Dan (April 16, 2010). "Federal judge strikes down National Day of Prayer statute". CNN. Retrieved April 16, 2010. 
  23. ^ Richey, Warren (April 15, 2010). "Federal judge: National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional". Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved April 17, 2010. 
  24. ^ " U.S. appeals ruling striking down National Day of Prayer". Retrieved May 3, 2012. 
  25. ^ AP: Court dismisses suit over National Day of Prayer
  26. ^ Court Dismisses Challenge to National Day of Prayer, USA Today

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