A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

National Day of Prayer: Still On


Q: Has President Obama canceled the May 6 National Day of Prayer?

A: No. This widely circulated falsehood echoes similar claims made last year when the president issued a pro-prayer-day proclamation but didn’t hold White House services as President Bush had done.

FULL QUESTION

I saw this on Facebook and was wondering if there is any truth to it.

President Obama has decided that there will no longer be a “National Day of Prayer” held in May. He doesn’t want to offend anybody. Where was his concern about offending Christians last January when he allowed the Muslims to hold a day of prayer on the capitol grounds. As a Christian American “I am offended.” If you agree copy and paste no matter what religion you are, this country was built on Freedom

FULL ANSWER

This latest claim of President Obama’s alleged hostility to prayer spread quickly after being posted on Facebook in mid-April, and it was still being repeated as the May 6 date approached.

It is contradicted by the chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force itself, Shirley Dobson. In an April 17 “update” on the task force’s website, nationaldayofprayer.org, she wrote:

Dobson: I want to emphasize that the 2010 National Day of Prayer will continue as planned. … Whether it’s our national observance on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., or the many thousands of gatherings scheduled elsewhere, we will come together on May 6th for what I’m confident will be a powerful time of intercession. It is our understanding that President Obama will be signing a proclamation again this year, and we are hopeful that governors and government officials will also do so as they have in the past.

And indeed, the White House has confirmed (in a brief message transmitted via Twitter) that “[a]s he did last year, President Obama intends to recognize a National Day of Prayer.”

The bogus claim that Obama canceled the 2010 event is a warmed-over version of similar false claims that circulated last year. They began when Obama decided in 2009 not to hold a White House observance in the East Room, as President Bush had done during his administration. Instead Obama issued a presidential proclamation close to the day of the event. It said in part:

Obama, May 7, 2009: I call upon Americans to pray in thanksgiving for our freedoms and blessings and to ask for God’s continued guidance, grace, and protection for this land that we love.

Far from being canceled, the 2009 event went on as scheduled. Organizers later said the 58th annual event produced “a greater outpouring of prayer for our nation … than ever before.”

Muslim Prayers

The Facebook rumor also claims — incorrectly — that Obama “allowed” a Muslim prayer event to take place on the Capitol grounds. But the president didn’t do any such thing. The Capitol grounds are not under his control, but rather under the jurisdiction of Congress, a separate branch of government. The Muslim prayer event, attended by about 8,000 persons, took place under a permit issued by the U.S. Capitol Police. Obama did not attend. (And it took place in September, not in January, as the Facebook posting claims.)

Court Ruling

Rumors that the National Day of Prayer had been canceled were fueled in part by an April 15 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Barbara B. Crabb, who held that the 1983 law establishing a “national day of prayer” (36 U.S.C. § 119) violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The judge said this means “the federal government may not endorse prayer in a statute.”

But that decision is being appealed by the Obama administration, and by the president personally, along with his press secretary, Robert Gibbs. Both filed a notice of appeal on April 22. Obama and Gibbs had been among the defendants named in the case, which was brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group of atheists and “freethinkers” devoted to maintaining separation of church and state. Dobson, the national prayer day chairman, praised the administration’s action:

Dobson, April 23: The Obama Administration has done the right thing in appealing this terrible court ruling, and we hope, and yes, we pray, that the Justice Department will use every avenue at its disposal to mount a vigorous defense of the National Day of Prayer

Meanwhile, Dobson said, the effect of the ruling has been stayed while it is being appealed, and the 2010 National Day of Prayer is scheduled to take place May 6.

— Brooks Jackson

Update, May 3: On April 30, the president issued a proclamation declaring May 6, 2010, to be this year’s National Day of Prayer. See our Wire post on the proclamation for more.

Sources

Dobson, Shirley. “Shirley Dobson Update.” National Day of Prayer Task Force website. 17 Apr 2010.

Twitter message. “As he did last year, President Obama intends to recognize a National Day of Prayer.” The White House. 15 Apr 2010.

Keck, Kristi. “Obama tones down National Day of Prayer observance.” CNN.com. 6 May 2009.

Obama, Barack. “Presidential Proclamation National Day of Prayer.” The White House. 7 May 2009.

“A Nation United in Prayer.” National Day of Prayer Task Force website. accessed 21 Sep 2009. (Since removed).

Dobsorn, Shirley. “2009 Accomplishments.” National Day of Prayer Task Force website. 17 Dec 2009.

Jackson, Brooks. “Muslim Prayer Day Sept. 25” FactCheck.org. 21 Sep 2009.

Rosen, James. “Muslim ‘Day of Unity’ Draws Prayerful, Protests” FoxNews.com. 25 Sep 2009.

Diamant, Jeff. “Islam Goes to Bat for America; Muslims Organizing Service Outside Capitol to ‘Pray for the Soul’ of the Nation.” Universal Press. 5 Sep 2009.

Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Obama No. 08-cv-588-bbc. Opinion and Order of U.S. Dist. Judge Barbara B. Crabb. 15 Apr 2010.