The United States has observed many unofficial national days of prayer throughout its history until 1952, when President Harry S. Truman signed a bill proclaiming a National Day of Prayer ("on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals"). This bill did not establish a specific calendar date for the event, but left it up to each president to designate a date of his choosing. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan fixed the date of the National Day of Prayer as the first Thursday of May.
In 2009 (and every year since), rumors were circulated claiming that President Barack Obama had "canceled" that year's National Day of Prayer. These claims were false and were based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the National Day of Prayer and the role of the President of the United States in its observation.
There is no official ceremony (presidential or otherwise) prescribed for the observance of the National Day of Prayer: it is a day on which the people of the U.S. are called upon "to turn to God in prayer and meditation," however they choose to do so. President Obama opted to issue the traditional proclamation designating the National Day of Prayer in 2009 (as he did again in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016) while observing the occasion privately:
"Prayer is something that the president does every day," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Adding that Obama would sign a proclamation to recognize the day. "I think the president understands, in his own life and in his family's life, the role that prayer plays. And I would denote that the administrations prior to the past one did proclamations. That's the way the president will publicly observe the national prayer day. But, as I said, privately, he'll pray as he does every day."
Other observances of the National Day of Prayer in the nation's capital have also continued throughout President Obama's administration, with the 2015 and 2016 events streamed live online from the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill.
Although it is true that President Obama has so far chosen not to host an ecumenical service in the East Room of the White House in observance of the National Day of Prayer as his predecessor, President George W. Bush, did each year throughout his tenure in office, that service was a personal preference of President Bush; it was neither an official ceremony prescribed by the bill that established the National Day of Prayer nor a long-standing presidential tradition. In fact, George W. Bush was the only president who ever regularly organized White House events in observance that day: President Ronald Reagan hosted only one throughout his eight years in office (a 1982 Rose Garden event), President George H.W. Bush also hosted only one during his four years in office (a 1989 State Dining Room breakfast), and President Bill Clinton hosted none at all in the course of his eight-year presidency. Claims that President Obama has "cancelled" the National Day of Prayer because he has so far opted not to hold a public prayer ceremony in observance of the occasion are therefore akin to asserting that Independence Day was "canceled" if a president chose not to attend a fireworks show on the 4th of July.
The status of the National Day of Prayer became uncertain on 15 April 2010 when a federal judge ruled in favor of a challenge brought by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and held that the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional. The Obama administration was actually the defendant in that suit, arguing in favor of retaining the National Day of Prayer:
President Barack Obama, who is charged with enforcing the statute by issuing a proclamation each year, and his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, contend that the statute is simply an "acknowledgment of the role of religion in American life" and is indistinguishable from government practices that courts have upheld in the past.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb says her order does not block any prayer day until after appeals in the case are exhausted.
White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said that the ruling therefore doesn't prevent Obama from issuing a Day of Prayer proclamation in May and that the president will do so.
The Obama administration appealed the ruling, and in April 2011 it was overturned by a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, who decreed that the Freedom from Religion Foundation and its plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer.
A December 2009 version of this item offered a photograph purportedly documenting President Obama's participation in an "Islamic Prayer Day" observance at the White House:
PHOTO: Obama Prays to Allah...
This is OUR President at an "Islamic Prayer Day" session LAST WEEK AT THE WHITE HOUSE
Oh, yes, Obama prays all right:
WITH THE MUSLIMS!!
This is OUR President at a MOSQUE prayer session LAST WEEK AT THE WHITE HOUSE, on the site where the INAUGURATION is held every 4 years!
He canceled OUR CHRISTIAN "NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER"...Now. ..THIS.
For Obama to continue as our president is an INSULT TO OUR FOUNDING FATHERS!
This photograph does not show President Obama instead observing "Islamic Prayer Day" or engaging in a "mosque prayer session" at the White House. This picture of the president was taken at Istanbul's Blue Mosque (where protocol dictates that visitors remove their shoes before entering), the national mosque of Turkey, during the chief executive's two-day state visit to that country in April 2009. (Another photograph of the president removing his shoes can be seen here, and video of President Obama at the Blue Mosque can be viewed here.) Also, there is no national "Islamic Prayer Day" acknowledged or observed by the White House: someone has confused the independently organized prayer service held by Muslims on Capitol Hill in September 2009 with an officially designated Islamic prayer day.
A March 2012 version of this item included the claims that "Obama says we are no longer a Christian nation" and "Muslims celebrate a day of prayer at the Capitol," both of which are inaccurate. During a keynote address to a "Call to Renewal" conference on 28 June 2006, what Barack Obama (then a senator from Illinois) said in context was, "We are no longer just a Christian nation":
It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.
Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.
Also, as noted above, there is no national "Islamic Prayer Day" acknowledged or observed by the White House: someone has confused the independently organized prayer service held by Muslims on Capitol Hill in September 2009 (which President Obama did not attend) with an officially designated Islamic prayer day. Contrary to the e-mail which trumpets "HE PRAYED ALL DAY WITH THE MUSLIMS," President Obama spent the day in Pittsburgh attending G-20 meetings.