The National Prayer Breakfast, which is held each year in Washington, D.C., attracts political and religious leaders from around the nation and the world, who gather to pray and reflect on faith. Many observers believe the event merely promotes faithfulness, humility, and reflection among national leaders. Others worry that the annual breakfast borders on governmental entanglement with religion in violation of the First Amendment.

National Prayer Breakfast dates back to informal prayer meetings

The National Prayer Breakfast dates back to the informal prayer meetings held by senators and representatives in 1942 at the height of World War II. In 1953 President Dwight D. Eisenhower presided over the first official national prayer event. The event became known as the National Prayer Breakfast in 1970.

Presidents and famous leaders of prayer attend the meetings

All presidents since Eisenhower have attended the National Prayer Breakfast. Recent prayer meetings have also been attended by nearly four thousand people of various faiths, who pay hundreds of dollars for their tickets. Famous speakers and leaders of prayer have included humanitarian Mother Teresa, rock star Bono, and evangelist Billy Graham. Although these speakers frequently point to the importance of faith in God, their words also often focus on issues of national and international morality, including poverty and AIDS.

Presidents approach role at National Prayer Breakfast differently

Each president has approached his role, and thus his speech, at the National Prayer Breakfast differently. President Bill Clinton, a mainline Protestant, was applauded by critics of the breakfast for keeping his speeches at the breakfasts relatively neutral in tone. Other presidents, such as George W. Bush, an evangelical Protestant, have delivered far more religious speeches at the events.

Some say National Prayer Breakfast amounts to government endorsement of religion

Some detractors of the National Prayer Breakfast have argued that it amounts to the government’s endorsement of religion. As interpreted by the Supreme Court in Everson v. Board of Education (1947) and Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), the First Amendment requires separation of church and state. Therefore, by participating in and speaking about the importance of faith at an annual prayer event as the head of state, the president is violating this principle. Those using this same line of reasoning find that the public participation of members of the Senate and House also amounts to government entanglement with religion.

These opponents also argue that although a few leaders from religions such as Judaism and Islam are usually present, the meeting undeniably has a Christian tone and focus. Because of this Christian tilt, some critics argue, the breakfast amounts to an unconstitutional endorsement of a particular religion. And yet despite critics’ concerns about the unconstitutionality of the National Prayer Breakfast, no serious lawsuits have been filed in U.S. courts challenging it.

This article was originally published in 2009. Christina L. Boyd is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Georgia. Her current research focuses on the quantitative examination of judges and litigants in federal courts.

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