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How inclusive is the National Day of Prayer?

Some groups are challenging the exclusive nature of Thursday's official events, coordinated by conservative Christians.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 30, 2008

On Thursday, several million Americans will gather in special observances across the country to mark the National Day of Prayer, first inaugurated by Congress in 1952.

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Under the energetic sponsorship of a national task force, the events have mushroomed into the thousands in recent years. They are held at houses of worship but also schools, courthouses, city halls, state houses, and at the White House and on Capitol Hill.

This year, however, voices are being raised to challenge the religiously exclusive nature of the task-force effort, which is coordinated by conservative Christians who have encouraged government leaders' involvement in their events but rejected direct participation by other faith leaders.

Jews on First, an online watchdog group on the First Amendment, has initiated a campaign for an "inclusive prayer day" that has attracted the support of interfaith and civil rights groups, Muslim organizations, and various churches, including the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Such groups are holding alternative services, staging protests near task force events in cities such as Fresno, Calif., and Camp Hill, Pa., or are lobbying governors in support of inclusive observances.

The National Day of Prayer "has been hijacked," says Jane Hunter, codirector of Jews on First. "Only Christian clergy are invited to participate.... And they encourage their coordinators to enlist elected officials or stage their observances on public property." This undermines the First Amendment's prohibition against any establishment of religion, she says.

On the National Day of Prayer Official Website, the task force requires that volunteer coordinators agree to a lengthy belief statement that begins: "I believe that the Holy Bible is the inerrant Word of the Living God. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only One by which I can obtain salvation...." The coordinators are to ensure that only Christians conduct the events, although anyone may attend them.

"From our standpoint, we feel our nation was founded on Christian principles, and that's our basis for making the day Judeo-Christian," says Brian Toon, vice chairman of the task force. "We don't exclude others from holding their own events."

In a policy statement, the task force says Congress intended that the day be celebrated in diversity, by groups of different theological views, but "not that every faith and creed would be homogenized."

It was evangelical Christians who encouraged the setting of a permanent day for the National Day of Prayer. (It was celebrated on various days after Truman.) In 1988, President Reagan signed the bill making it the first Thursday in May.

An evangelical National Prayer Committee created the privately funded task force to coordinate prayer day events, and "to mobilize the Christian community to intercede for America and its leadership in the seven centers of power: Government, Military, Media, Business, Education, Church and Family." In a special event this year called Prayer Flight, private pilots will fly and pray over all 50 state capitols.

Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, heads the task force.