A federal lawsuit can’t shake her faith in religious liberty
The receptionist for Focus on the Family had just come back from lunch when she heard the disturbance at the glass doors in front of her. She looked up into the very intense face of a man demanding to talk immediately with Dr. James Dobson, head of the ministry.
Graciously, the receptionist began explaining that Dr. Dobson was with his wife, Shirley, in Washington, D.C., that afternoon for National Day of Prayer observances …but she quickly became distracted.
The man, she realized, was holding a gun. And tied around his waist were what appeared to be some kind of explosives.
The Dobsons had just returned to their hotel room when the phone rang with word that the receptionist and three others were being held hostage at the ministry in Colorado Springs. The couple immediately paused to pray for the Focus staff and the gunman, and began asking others around them to pray, too.
Soon, word came that the gunman had surrendered, without hurting anyone – though he did fire his weapon, tearing a hole high on the wall behind the receptionist’s desk.
When Mrs. Dobson enters the front doors at Focus, she walks right by that gash. It remains unrepaired – a reminder of God’s powerful intervention one long, frightening afternoon nearly 14 years ago.
These days, though, it’s also a quiet reminder of something else. For these days, it is the National Day of Prayer itself that’s endangered. And it’s Shirley Dobson who is under the gun.
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On October 3, 2008, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a federal lawsuit in Wisconsin challenging the 1952 law that created the National Day of Prayer (NDOP). The lawsuit claimed the law to be a violation of the so-called Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In addition, the lawsuit accused then-President George W. Bush (later amended to President Obama); his press secretary, Dana Perino; Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle; and NDOP Task Force Chairman Shirley Dobson forof violating the Constitution through their various proclamations of the event.
“I don’t think a person is ever prepared to become the defendant in a lawsuit,” says Mrs. Dobson, who learned of the suit through an e-mail. It’s her first time ever to be personally named in a legal action. “But I wasn’t necessarily surprised. In recent years we’ve seen increasingly aggressive attacks leveled against those who dare to express their faith in the public arena. There are some individuals who think any declaration of personal belief in God – ‘In God We Trust’ on our currency, ‘Under God’ in our Pledge of Allegiance, or the Ten Commandments – should be banished from public settings.”
She says she is “deeply concerned” by the efforts of groups like FFRF and the ACLU to “stifle these public expressions of faith,” and “dismantle the heritage of Judeo-Christian belief upon which our country was founded.
“Corporate intercession has been a cherished tradition among the American people, starting with our Founding Fathers,” she says. “Now, during these troubling times, it is especially critical that we come together to seek the Lord’s wisdom and guidance for the challenges before us.”
“Prayer unites hearts and voices,” she says, “It allows people of all denominations, demographics, and backgrounds to come together before God’s throne. This is a day when we can set aside our differences and agree on this: Our nation needs prayer.”
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That conviction has been at the heart of the National Day of Prayer event since its inception – a beginning that coincides closely with the birth of the nation itself. The Continental Congress issued the first call for the colonists to pray in 1775, as frustration with England moved to a boiling point. George Washington called for prayer during his tenure in the White House, and Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a “Day of National Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer” during the depths of the Civil War.
On D-Day, the critical invasion of Normandy during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Americans to pray for the Allied forces, and actually led the nation in a six-minute prayer on the radio. Less than a decade later, in 1952, the official National Day of Prayer was established by a joint resolution of the United States Congress and signed into law by President Truman.
In 1988, President Reagan signed amended legislation which established that the National Day of Prayer would be held on the first Thursday of every May. Since then, every president has issued a proclamation encouraging Americans to commemorate the day, and millions now honor the occasion with special prayer services, community events, and private observances.
The FFRF lawsuit is the first to challenge these annual proclamations, and ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, who headed up Mrs. Dobson’s defense (in coordination with those representing the other defendants and the government), called the suit against Mrs. Dobson “unprecedented.”
“Groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation make no secret of the fact that they think religion is a bad thing, and they want to get rid of it,” he says. “They don’t just want to make prayer a private thing. They believe religion is bad for society as a whole, and they want to eliminate it from the public square. This is just one more attempt to do so.”
Theriot says he believes Mrs. Dobson was singled out not only for her leadership of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, but for what she represents, as the wife of one of the nation’s pre-eminent religious leaders (and one of the founders of ADF).
“She clearly is very fervent and genuine in her love for Christ and for America,” he says, “and in her belief that prayer is essential for America to continue its leading role in the world. She’s very aware that when you take a stand for anything that publicly promotes religious faith, you may well become a target.”
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“Since I was a small girl,” Mrs. Dobson says, “I have always had a heart for prayer. I grew up in a dysfunctional family, with a father who had a drinking problem.” Her mother took Mrs. Dobson and her brother to a local church, where young Shirley, just six, heard from her Sunday school teacher about a God “Who knew me by name, heard all my prayers, and saw all my tears.”
She gave her heart to Christ, and it was then, she says, “that I started kneeling by my bed at night, praying for my father, that he would go God’s way. Whenever my heart was breaking, I would cry out to my Heavenly Father, confident that He loved and cared about me and my situation.”
Events such as the hostage incident at Focus only served to reinforce that confidence.
“As He’s done over and over through the years,” she says, “the Lord used that situation to impress on me that He hears our cries and responds according to His loving, sovereign purposes. We can’t anticipate what the future will hold, but we serve a great God.”
One of the things that Mrs. Dobson herself didn’t anticipate was a request in 1990 from Vonette Bright (co-founder, with her husband, Bill, of Campus Crusade for Christ) that she consider taking over the reins of the National Day of Prayer Task Force. Her first answer was “no.” Being Mrs. James Dobson and, at the time, a board member of Focus on the Family, were – all by themselves – “a very full cup.”
Mrs. Bright’s response was appropriate enough: she urged Mrs. Dobson to pray about it.
“The more I prayed, the more I felt that the Lord had His thumb in my back,” Mrs. Dobson says. She looked to her husband for confirmation, confident that he, of all people, would appreciate her predicament.
“He was in his office when I approached him,” she remembers, “and I’ll never forget his response. He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘Shirley, what more important ministry could you be involved in than leading the nation in prayer?’ I gulped and said I would continue to pray about it.”
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Ultimately, the tag-teaming between the Lord, her husband, and Mrs. Bright proved persuasive. “When Vonette asked me a second time,” Mrs. Dobson says, “I realized the only answer I could give and be obedient was ‘yes.’
“I expected to serve as the chairman for two or three years. Now, 19 years later, I am in awe of how God has grown and blessed this ministry.
“Each May, thousands of events are held,” she says. “They take place in churches, parks, stadiums, and prisons, on the steps of state capitol buildings, on military bases around the world … even on buses, trains, and private planes. The creativity never ceases to amaze us.” During the eight years of the Bush administration, the Dobsons were invited to special prayer services at the White House. For the past two years, the observance held at the Cannon House Office Building in Washington, D.C., has been aired over the Internet on GodTV, “and this has allowed us to add millions of new participants here and in countries around the globe.”
An event that involves millions of people inevitably requires a massive amount of planning and cooperation. “Because we are often working with well-known musicians, as well as highly visible religious and government leaders who have busy schedules, selecting individuals for the program and making things work smoothly takes much effort and prayer,” Mrs. Dobson says.
But she takes her greatest encouragement, she says, from ordinary citizens who plan and participate in local and state events across the country.
“Knowing there are so many believers who come before God regularly for the sake of our nation is a great source of strength and inspiration to me,” she says. “It’s easy to become distressed by the circumstances facing us as a country, but I’m hopeful when I see there is a strong and faithful remnant of God’s people who remain devoted to Him and His Word. The overwhelming response of our countrymen to the Task Force’s call to prayer has been humbling, yet incredibly encouraging.”
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The most obvious attack on religious freedom in this lawsuit is the plaintiffs’ claim that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional. But what might not be as obvious is that the plaintiffs here sued a private individual for her religious activities, not just government officials. In an unprecedented move, the plaintiffs here argued that a private person – Mrs. Dobson – violated the Constitution for her own actions in supporting prayer. The fact that such a claim was brought against a private individual should shock everyone’s conscience. No longer are groups like the FFRF content with targeting the government ‘s involvement with religious matters. They have broadened their attack to include private individual’s religious activities.
ADF attorneys pointed out this unprecedented attack to the court, and thankfully the court dismissed this claim.
But unfortunately, on April 15, that same federal district court struck down the statute setting a specific day for the National Day of Prayer as unconstitutional. The decision has been appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and it is likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will have the final say in this matter. The court did stay its opinion while the case is being appealed, meaning it will have no bearing on this year’s National Day of Prayer.
Given that so many other presidents clearly supported National Day of Prayer observances, Theriot says, and the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has already come down in support of government-paid chaplains “as an acknowledgement of our historical roots,” he is hopeful that the Seventh Circuit will protect the right of private citizens to pray for their country.
Nevertheless, he adds, the implications of this suit – and the growing number of similar legal assaults on Christian expression in the public square – are ominous.
“The Seventh Circuit could affirm and declare that that there can be no more legislation recognizing the National Day of Prayer which in turn could pave the way for eliminating similar federal observances, including Thanksgiving," says Theriot. "What’s more, such a legal precedent could ultimately impact any government allusion to God, from federal currency to the national anthem."
“My team and I are so grateful to ADF for stepping up to provide us with such a skilled legal defense,” says Mrs. Dobson. “We are also grateful to the many donors who make this ministry possible. It has been a Godsend for me and the NDP."
”ADF has an impressive track record,” she says. “They’ve won many significant victories both in the courtroom and through grassroots movements. I have profound appreciation for what they are doing to defend religious liberty throughout the United States … and the need for their work cannot be underestimated.”
Neither can the prayers of Shirley Dobson. Rest assured, that little girl who knelt beside her bed to pour out her heart to God is still praying. And those big legal guns don’t scare her one little bit.
Do you know someone who would want to learn more about his or her constitutionally protected rights as a pastor?