The National Day of Prayer, which will be next week on May 5th, is an annual day of observance designated by the United States Congress. The National Day of Prayer has a long history in the United States, which you can learn more about here. However, in recent years, the day has been receiving some attention, with both criticism and praise.
In 2008, The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a non-profit which works to educate the public on matters related to non-theism, and to promote the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, filed a lawsuit against the federal government arguing that the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional.
In a lower court, a Wisconsin District Judge agreed with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, ruling that the day amounted to a call for religious action. The Judge wrote: "It goes beyond mere 'acknowledgment' of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context," she wrote. "In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience."
However, the Judge’s ruling did not go unnoticed. The Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based group of Christian lawyers, issued a statement shortly after the 2008 hearing, saying that the Judge’s ruling undermined American tradition. Also in response, the Obama administration announced that it would appeal the court’s decision.
On April 14th 2011, the federal appeals court ruled that the National Day of Prayer imposes responsibility solely the U.S. President, leaving private citizens no legal standing to challenge it. The court described the proclamations of the National Day of Prayer as requests, not commands on the public.
In many workplaces, the National Day of Prayer may simply come and go under the radar; however it’s important for managers to be aware of the day, and the potential impact of these court cases on employee interactions. As the voices of atheists and agnostics continue to grow more vocal in the United States, companies or employee resource groups who support or observe the National Day of Prayer need to be prepared to experience more pushback from those who don’t support the day. On the other hand, this ruling could very well invite attention to the National Day of Prayer and inspire a resurgence in participation (and requests for company participation) amongst employees, a development that will also require companies to prepare an appropriate response.
For more about the history of the National Day of Prayer, and better practices on addressing this day in the workplace, visit our National Day of Prayer FAQ on our Religious Diversity in the Workplace resources page.