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Religious Tolerance logo

The National Day of Reason:
Held on the first Thursday in May. Part 1.

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Leaders from American national and local Atheist, secular, Humanist and Rationalist groups have sponsored an annual National Day of Reason to be held on the same day as the National Day of Prayer. Both are scheduled for the first Thursday in May -- e.g. 2011-MAY-05. 1 In a letter of 2003-MAR-21, they have asked President Bush to proclaim the observance. They noted that such an action "would go a long way toward encouraging the application of reason and tolerance in public discourse and affirming the value of maintaining the separation of church and state." 2 In their letter, they proposed a draft proclamation which would read:

bullet WHEREAS the foundational documents of our great nation were born of the Enlightenment, incorporating, for the first time in history a commitment to the principles of reason, tolerance, democracy, and human rights; and

bullet WHEREAS the consistent application of reason offers hope that we may resolve the many challenges facing humanity, whether environmental, military, economic or social, and will enable moral and ethical interactions among people and their environment; and

bullet WHEREAS the United States of America has been a world leader in fields of endeavor that rely on reason, including scientific and medical research, social reform, democratic government, fair elections, and human rights;

NOW, THEREFORE I, George W. Bush, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the power vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim Thursday, the 1st day of May, 2003, a NATIONAL DAY OF REASON, and encourage all citizens, residents, and visitors to join in observing this day and focus upon the employ of reason, critical thought, the scientific method, and free inquiry to resolve human problems and care for the welfare of humankind. 2

He declined to proclaim the Day of Reason.

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As of 2003-APR-1, the Day of Reason has been endorsed by 27 organizations: Washington Area Secular Humanists, American Humanist Association, Institute for Humanist Studies, Frederick Secular Humanists, Minnesota Atheists, Americans for Religious Liberty, Secular Humanists of the Low Country, Secular Humanists and Atheists of Lehigh Valley, Council for Secular Humanism, Atheist Station, Humanists of Montgomery County, Humanists of Los Angeles, New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, Humanists of North Puget Sound, Tri State Secular Humanists, South Carolina Progressive Network, Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix, Great Lakes Humanist Society, Humanist Community of Tucson, Humanists of Prescott, ULC of Kalamzoo, Corvallis Secular Society, Atheist Alliance International, Humanists of Greater Cincinnati, Secular Coalition for America,, Houston Atheists, and Upstate SC Secular Humanists. By 2005-MAY, the list had grown to 90 groups. It has also been endorsed many hundreds of individuals.

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Reaction to the National Day of Prayer:

The National Day of Reason (NDR) is a reaction to the annual National Day of Prayer (NDP) which is authorized by Federal statute. The NDP was originally conceived as an partly-inclusive celebration for the approximately 85% of Americans who believe in a personal deity or deities who respond to prayer. This would include most followers of monotheistic religions: conservative Christians, liberal Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and perhaps Deists. It had included believers in duotheistic religions, such as Wicca and Zoroastrianism, as well as polytheistic and henotheistic religions, such as most Aboriginal traditions, some Buddhist groups, Hindus, etc.

However, the Day appears to have been monopolized by a conservative Christian group who have converted it into a conservative-Christian-only observance. It is now coordinated by an evangelical Christian group the National Day of Prayer Task Force which is closely affiliated with the Fundamentalist Christian advocacy group Focus on the Family. A Nationally Broadcast Concert of Prayer (NBCOP) is broadcast over a network of conservative Christian television and radio stations and over the Internet on the evening of the Day of Prayer.

Thus, the NDP has was originally divisive, and has become more so, because it divides Americans between:

  • Those who believe in God and those who don't.

  • Those who believe in an involved God who relates closely with individual humans and Deists who, along with about one quarter of all American adults, believe in a remote deity who doesn't interact with humans.

  • Evangelical and other Christians.

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Constitutionality of a NDP and/or a NDR law or proclamation:

The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, guarantees that:

  • Individuals will have freedom of religious expression, and

  • The government and its agencies will not engage in programs that recognize:

    • One religious faith as more valid than any other faith.

    • Secularism as more valid that theism (the belief in deity or deities).

    • Theism as more valid than secularism.

These two principles are continuously in a state of creative tension. Many Americans feel that prayer forms part of their religious expression; thus they want their children to pray in school, their school board and municipal council to pray before it holds a meeting, law courts to post the 10 commandments, the Federal government to proclaim a NDP, etc. Others, including the U.S. Supreme Court, feel that a wall of separation must be maintained between religion and the government and its agencies.

Thus, the U.S. constitution appears to prohibit:

  • The Federal, state or local governments from proclaiming the NDP.

  • Governments at all levels (federal, state, county, municipal) from organizing NDP functions, or funding them with taxpayer money.

The "American Center for Law and Justice" prepared a special bulletin in anticipation of restrictions by schools and government bodies of NDP observances. 3Section VI of that bulletin appears to contain some errors. It states that students are free to engage in prayer and other religious speech at any time and location within the school, as long as it does not interfere with school discipline. That would imply that student initiated spoken prayer in the classroom is constitutionally permitted. It is not.

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1. Proclaiming the National Day of Prayer, alone:

The Supreme Court has issued many decisions in recent years which clarify the range of allowable government involvement in religion. The act which proclaims the National Day of Prayer appears to be unconstitutional for many reasons. It promotes the concepts that:

  1. God exists.
  2. God is male.
  3. God is a single entity.
  4. God responds to prayer.
  5. To have a religious faith is more valid than following a secular path, like Agnosticism, Atheism, freethinking, Humanism, and secularism.
  6. Religions which require belief in a single, male, personal God who responds to prayer are more valid than other religions which do not (e.g. Buddhism, Deism, Hinduism and some followers of the Unitarian Universalism Association.)

On 2010-APR-15, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb in Wisconsin ruled that the government proclamation of the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional because such proclamation amounts to a call for religious action. 4

This ruling had zero effect on the NDP observance, since:

  • The ruling did not declare the NDP unconstitutional as many religious and secular news sources stated. It merely declared the government proclamation of the day unconstitutional.

  • The ruling would not have been not binding on the President until all appeals had been completed.

  • The First Amendment to the U.S. constitution guaranteed the right of citizens to pray on the first Thursday of every May.

  • The Task Force could continue to function as a coordinating body.

  • Local groups could continue to organize NDP events.

  • Various rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court have confirmed the right of individuals and groups to hold prayer meetings on streets, sidewalks, parks, courthouse lawns, and in government buildings (including school rooms and auditoriums) which are generally accessible by the public.

  • As in the past, if school boards allow any secular student club to exist, it must also allow the creation of religious clubs; if they have rented a school auditorium or room to any secular group in the past, they must rent it also to religious groups including a gathering observing a local NDP event.

  • The first amendment guarantees that students have the right to observe the NDP in their school's Bible Clubs, when saying grace in the cafeteria, by the flagpole, in the hallways, in the classroom outside of instruction time, etc. -- almost any time any any place.

Anyway, almost exactly one year later, the ruling of Federal District Judge Crabb was unanimously overturned on a technicality by a three judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. They did not rule on the constitutionality of the government proclamation of the NDP. Instead, they reversed the lower court's decision after finding that the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) -- the group that initiated the original lawsuit -- did not have standing to do so. 4 Again, many of the religious and secular news sources misreported the ruling by stating that it was the NDP itself and not the proclamation of the NDP that was found to be constitutional. The FFRF is seeking a rehearing by the entire appeals court. FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor condemned the appeals court decision as cowardly. She said it is clear that had the appeals court panel ruled on the merits instead of throwing the case out on standing, FFRF would have won, as it did in federal district court. She said:

"Our challenge is so strong, our claim is so correct. The First Amendment says, 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.' 'No law' should mean no law!" 5

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2. Proclaiming both a National Day of Prayer, and a National Day of Reason:

If the President, and/or Congress, were to proclaim both Days, then their action might possibly be determined by the courts to be constitutional. The executive and/or legislative branches of government would then not be recognizing:

  • Secularism as more valid that theism, or

  • Theism as more valid than secularism,

because they would be recognizing both a religious and a secular observance simultaneously. It would be an interesting constitutional challenge.

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3. Proclaiming only a National Day of Reason:

If the President, and/or Congress, were to proclaim a NDR but not a NDP, then their action should be regarded by the courts as constitutional. The executive and/or legislative branches of government would then be recognizing the role of reason in science, government, medicine, other types of research, news reporting, in people's personal affairs, and in countless other areas of life.

The chances of a National Day of Reason being proclaimed by the government in the foreseeable future are extremely slim, since it would be seen by many people as a negation of the National Day of Prayer. Recall that about 75% of Americans identify themselves as Christian while only 14% do not follow any organized religion. With the former dropping slowly, and the latter increasing over ½ percentage points per year, such a dual observance is probably inevitable, if current trends continue as they have in other Christian (or formerly Christian) countries. But, don't look for it any time soon.

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This topic continues in Part 2

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  1. The Day of Reason's home page is at:
  2. The text of the letter to the president is at:
  3. "Special Bulletin: National Day of Prayer," The American Center for Law and Justice, at: This appears to be no longer online.
  4. "Judge rules National Day of Prayer unconstitutional," USA Today, 2010-APR-16, at:
  5. Brian Montopoli, "National Day of Prayer ruled constitutional," CBS News, 2011-APR-14, at:
  6. "FFRF to seek 'en banc' rehearing on National Day of Prayer ruling in 7th Circuit," Freedom From Religion Foundation, 2011-APR-14, at:

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Copyright © 2003 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 2003-APR-1.
Most recent update: 2011-MAY-06
Author: B.A. Robinson
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