Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=185826
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On National Day of Prayer, atheists say they feel marginalized

by Tiffany Lane
May 04, 2011


The National Day of Prayer can be either a day of coming together of faiths or a day of seclusion, depending on a person’s viewpoint of religion. 

Thursday marks the 59th anniversary of the event, and people have mixed feelings about whether the day should be sanctioned by the federal government.

“I don’t think there’s any harm in calling people of faith to intercede with one another on behalf of the well-being of the world,” said the Rev. Danielle Thompson of St. Chrysostom's Episcopal Church in Chicago’s Gold Coast.

Tina Van Yzendroon, who has worked at the nearby First St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church for 10 years, said government’s role in the event doesn’t trouble her.

“It’s not a mandatory thing. We’re not a dictator country,” she said. “It’s not a law that people have to pray.”

Yzendroon said the day allows people to decide whether they want to be a part of it.

“I think it’s open enough that everyone who wants to be included can be included,” she said.

Rabbi Abe Friedman from the Anshe Emet Synagogue in Lake View said there is nothing wrong with federal administration giving the option of prayer.

“It’s clear the government ensures the day includes all traditions,” he said. “This is not a way to promote any one religion that’s in violation of the Constitution.”

Ronald A. Lindsay, the president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, a secular organization based in New York that emphasizes science and reason, said in a statement that the government should not tell people whether or not to pray.

“Government prodding to pray demeans both believers and nonbelievers,” Lindsay said. “Prayer under government pressure is about as meaningful as a compelled kiss.”

Hemant Mehta, spokesman for the Chicago Coalition of Reason, a group of organizations that follow a human-centered and natural approach to life, also finds the day constitutionally offensive.

“When President Obama and other government officials endorse it,” he said, “they're implicitly saying that atheists are second-class citizens in this country.”

Mehta said he has no problem with churches promoting the day and the president and religious groups praying on their own time.

“But to use his position as an elected official to promote one faith over another, or faith over no faith, he's crossing the line into something that is unconstitutional and should not occur,” Mehta said.

He said the way to include non-religious individuals is for Obama to urge everyone to volunteer and donate their time and resources to those who need them.

“That's not a religious idea. That's simply humanity at its best,” Mehta said. “As the saying goes, hands that help are far better than lips that pray.”

Rabbi Jodi Kornfeld of the Beth Chaverim Humanistic Jewish Community in Deerfield said the day alienates non-religious individuals.

“What people believe is deeply personal to each person,” Kornfeld said. “The government shouldn’t push people in any single direction and shouldn’t marginalize any segment of the population that doesn’t move in that direction.”

But last month a federal appeals court ruled that a statute requiring the president to designate a National Day of Prayer was not unconstitution. The ruling overturned one made a year ago by District Judge Barbara Crabb, holding that the day of prayer is unconstitutional.

In 2008, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued President George W. Bush and the chair of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, later amending to include President Barack Obama.

David L. Franklin, associate professor at the DePaul University College of Law, said cases related to religion and the government have become difficult for petitioners to win.

“The 7th Circuit decision is very much in line with the Supreme Court in narrowing the ability of plaintiffs to go to court to challenge violations of church and state,” he said.

Franklin said plaintiffs need to show legal standing and one of two things to make it to court. Plaintiffs must show “they are confronted with a government sponsored religious display in a distinctive inexplicable way or that the government has spent your tax dollars on spending programs that fund religion.”