“For instance, school districts requiring prayer on a National Day of Prayer would, in all likelihood, violate the Establishment Clause. Schools can study about prayer and the role of prayer in our lives, but not require or even strongly encourage prayer, particularly in younger grades," says Professor Kent. "Conversely, however, governors and the president can encourage us to pray in our private lives, without establishing a religion or coercing religious practices.”
Such observances will go on in dozens of forms – from long speeches to short notices to silent prayers sponsored by congregations small and large.
“This is a very positive thing and the more of it and the more diverse, the better,” says author and television personality Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. “Unlike Europe, where such a day would be impossible, this is what makes the US the multiple and varied society that it is. We are all Americans and pray to the same God. This spotlights the collective and raises us all above our denominations to realize we are all one, human family.”
The origin of the day goes back to the Founding Fathers.
The Continental Congress asked the colonies to pray for wisdom in forming a nation in 1775, and Thomas Jefferson said in 1808: “Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.”
Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War proclaimed a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in 1863. Ninety years later, Congress passed a formal declaration marking an annual event on the first Thursday of May and Harry Truman signed it into law.