Today is our annual National Day of Prayer. Who knew?
Actually, a 1952 federal law, amended in 1968, requires the President to issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as 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. Of course, the concept of such an observance is hardly new and is in fact deeply rooted in our American history back to colonial times. Thanksgiving Day, after all, is in theory just that sort of day too - colonial in origin but also proclaimed annually by the President to be observed on a date already stipulate in the law. some presidents have been more enthusiastic about it - holding events at the White House. Others have confined themselves simply to issuing the prescribed proclamation.
Not surprisingly, the infamous Freedom from Religion Foundation challenged the National Day of Prayer in court in 2008. After winning initially in a US District Court, the FFRF lost in 2011 when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "the President is free to make appeals to the public based on many kinds of grounds, including political and religious, and that such requests do not obligate citizens to comply and do not encroach on citizens' rights." (The same court also cited Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, for making reference to God seven times and to prayer three times.)
One reason we hear so little about the National Day of Prayer and why some presidents have made more if it while others have been content to issue the prescribed proclamation is that since 1983 the event has been effectively hijacked by a group called The National Day of Prayer Task Force, a conservative Evangelical Christian organization which organizes Evangelical Christian religious observances of the day each year. The group also proclaims a theme for each year's observance. According to the group's website, this year's theme is For Your Great Name’s Sake! Hear Us... Forgive Us...Heal Us! (based on Daniel 9:19, O Lord, Listen! O Lord, Forgive! O Lord, Hear and Act! For Your Sake, O My God).
Apparently, President Trump has decided to use today to issue yet another Executive Order, intended presumably to please his conservative Evangelical Christian constituency. According to yesterday's NY Times, the President is expected to "offer a vague promise to “protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.” He will also direct federal agencies to exempt some religious organizations from Affordable Care Act requirements that provide employees with health coverage for contraception." The article suggests that he will also "direct the Internal Revenue Service to exercise 'maximum enforcement discretion' so that religious organizations and other nonprofit groups are not subject to punishment for expressing political views during campaign seasons."
Actually, the law in question (the so-called "Johnson Amendment") does not prevent churches and religious groups from political advocacy. it only precludes their endorsing or otherwise supporting specific candidates. And, as The Times notes, many clergy - including many evangelical clergy - "say they do not want to endorse political candidates from the pulpit because it could split their congregations and distract from their religious messages."
Of course, only Congress can actually completely change or repeal the "Johnson Amendment." All President Trump can do is encourage "maximum enforcement discretion" - a largely symbolic change, given that there has been little evidence of especially strict enforcement of the relevant provision by the IRS over the years anyway.
The "contraception mandate" - an unwise provocation against churches and religious groups by the previous administration - is, in fact, a regulation which the President probably can obliterate if not by executive order, then by the more deliberative process of repealing or replacing the relevant regulation - a step which may require more than Trump is as yet prepared to do but which would be all to the good if and when it is done. Beyond that, the rest of this seems likely to be more about symbolism for a particular constituency. It remains to be seen what effects it will have and whether and how much the President's conservative Evangelical constituents may be satisfied with such symbolism.