Suzette Martinez Standring: Day of prayer does serve a secular function

Suzette Martinez Standring

Aggressive atheism claimed a temporary victory. After 59 years, the National Day of Prayer might be banned due to a lawsuit brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation that alleges it violates a separation of church and state.

National Prayer Day was ruled unconstitutional because it is “an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function,” according to an April 15 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb. However, the day will continue as planned until appeals determine the lawsuit’s ultimate success.

To say prayer “serves no secular function” is to dismiss the fact that faith-based organizations are often among first responders to disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina or to the earthquake victims in Haiti.

It denies the good accomplished by millions of people guided to be the answer to somebody else’s urgent prayers. Often, many credit the ability to act beyond their own self-interests to the power of prayer.

Though Judge Crabb will let the issue be resolved on appeal, she respects the power of prayer when she wrote: “It bears emphasizing that a conclusion that the establishment clause prohibits the government from endorsing a religious exercise is not a judgment on the value of prayer or the millions of Americans who believe in its power.

“No one can doubt the important role that prayer plays in the spiritual life of a believer. In the best of times, people may pray as a way of expressing joy and thanks; during times of grief, many find that prayer provides comfort. Others may pray to give praise, seek forgiveness, ask for guidance or find the truth.”

Litigants such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation often invoke “separation of church and state,” but the doctrine’s intent was to prevent the government from organizing an official religion and forcing adherence. Now it’s used to delete any divine reference or expression in public places.

The foundation argues the National Day of Prayer acts as a religious endorsement, but the day does not specify any one religion.

Prayer is not limited to Christians alone, but is practiced by all faiths, whether one worships one God, a pantheon of deities or nature itself. A National Day of Prayer is not a demand for worship, but a reminder that one of America’s great liberties is religious expression.

Eliminating the National Day of Prayer won’t stop people from praying, but its opponents ultimately seek to ban a national awareness of God.

The National Day of Prayer shares a message of spiritual encouragement; that if you believe in something higher than yourself, then enjoy that relationship. Your right to pray is recognized and respected.

Suppression of that message is the underpinning to opposition. Who are they protecting? Each person in America is free to embrace, reject or ignore any spiritual message.

Under the guise of secular equality, the Freedom From Religion Foundation seeks to delete all references to the divine. In public, God has got to go. Get rid of the Nativity scenes and the menorahs at holidays. Prayer is a personal matter, so shut up and keep it yourself. Don’t offend non-believers with your beliefs.

Spirituality is as indivisible to the human makeup as our emotional, physical and psychological components. People who pray are asking for guidance or a transformation of self. They petition to get through hardships or to turn away from destructive behaviors. Most common is a plea for others.

At the darkest times in American history – the Revolution, the Civil War and Sept. 11 - prayer was nationally invoked. Prayer played a visible role among those fighting for the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.

National Prayer Day reminds us to latch onto something higher – however one defines the divine - and to harness that power. Finding a way through prayer to act beyond one’s self interest does serve a secular function.

Suzette Standring is the award-winning author of “The Art of Column Writing.” E-mail her at