Every year on the first Thursday of May people of all faiths in America are encouraged to participate in the National Day of Prayer, and turn to God for guidance and to pray for their country. It is a very controversial day, as the United States Constitution states that there needs to be a separation of state and church. The Freedom From Religion Foundation took this to court to challenge the constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer in 2011, but was unsuccessful.
National Day of Prayer is not a federal holiday, and schools and businesses remain open.
The origins of National Day of Prayer can be traced back to the 18th century when, rebelling against British Rule, the Colonies would call for days of prayer.
In 1775, the Continental Congress officially proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer should be observed by all colonies on July 20. This was very successful, and more people participated on the day than went to church on Sundays, and so, it was decided by Congress that there should be a day of prayer every spring, and a day of thanksgiving every fall.
Through the 18th century, it was the Presidents' decision whether a day of prayer was to be observed or not, and so the day was celebrated intermittently, as some Presidents, like Thomas Jefferson, believed that prayer was a personal thing and the state shouldn’t be involved.
For 47 years, from 1815 to 1862, there weren't any proclamations of national days of prayer by any President.
National Day of Prayer became an official celebration in 1952 when during the Korean War, Reverend Billy Graham thought it was essential for there to be a day for the country to unite in prayer. A joint resolution by the House and the Senate was then introduced for a National Day of Prayer, and on April 17, 1952 President Harry Truman signed the resolution declaring that each President that succeeded him must declare a National Day of Prayer on a date of their choice. In 1988, an amendment to the bill set National Day of Prayer to be observed on the first Thursday of May.
How the day is observed
Events around the country are organized by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, and an estimated 35,000 prayer gatherings take place all across the United States, with people of all faiths answering the call for prayer.