Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Why a National Day of Prayer?

“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”

That is the text of a law which will once again be rearing its ugly head tomorrow. Here’s another law.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Do you see a conflict? I sure do. The national Day of Prayer very clearly violates the First Amendment to the Constitution (that’s the second quote there, for those who might be unfamiliar).

Yes, I am well aware that this law withstood a Constitutional challenge in the courts. Of course, it did so not by ruling whether it violated the law, but by ruling that the plaintiffs didn’t have standing to sue because it didn’t cause concrete harm. Essentially, the court decided that officially alienating anybody whose religious beliefs do not include “turning to God in prayer and meditation,” does not constitute a harm done to them by the government. In other words, laws that clearly violate the constitution are allowable as long as they don’t cause harm (or the harm is sufficiently nebulous to hand-wave away). But the fact remains that this is a law “respecting an establishment of religion.”

Not only that, it really is a Christian-specific law if you look at the wording. Only Christians use “God” as if it were a name – the Jewish faith prefers not to write the word at all, Muslim faiths tend to use the title “Allah,” (though the meaning is essentially the same), and of course many non-Abrahamic religions only use it in the lower-case sense as a descriptor. Wording meant to be inclusive of all religious people would have been something like “their god or gods,” rather than “God.” The wording that exists would only be used by someone ignorant of the fact that other religious traditions even exist, or deliberately singling out for preference the tradition that uses it. Given how often issues of religious freedom get put up in front of legislators, it’s hard to make the argument that ignorance is the source of the wording. And even if you could make that argument, it still wouldn’t be a good one for keeping the law as-is.

The reference to churches (and only churches, with no mention of synagogues, temples, mosques, lodges, etc.) in the law is another clue to the intent. There is absolutely no need to reference a place for “prayer and meditation” in the law at all. If all you wanted to do was encourage people to pray (or meditate) together or individually, that’s pretty much all you need to say. Referencing only the location of a specific form of religious service implies that it is that form you wish to encourage.

But even if you somehow stretch the bounds of linguistic interpretation to pretend that the wording is inclusive of all religious faiths, it is not inclusive of all religious positions. Specifically, it excludes those whose religious position is “none,” or whose religious faith does not include a god at whom to direct prayers (for example, deists). I have heard it argued that the inclusion of the word “meditation” allays this objection, because meditation can be performed in a nonreligious context. But go look at the wording again. It does not say for people to meditate. It says for them to “turn to God in prayer and meditation.” If you do not have a god to meditate on, this is clearly a ridiculous instruction and very clearly excludes your position.

The National Day of Prayer clearly establishes a state position that a god exists and ought to be prayed to. It strongly implies that the god that exists and ought to be prayed to is the Christian one. That is an establishment of religion. The fact that it’s one that can be freely ignored (and the legal and linguistic contortions that are used to keep it on the books render its clear intent farcical) doesn’t change that one bit.

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