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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.

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While some houses of worship of other denominations and faiths do hold their own observances, critics question the effort the task force has made to be the "official" sponsor and involve government in its efforts. They see it as part of the mission of conservative groups to "reclaim America as a Christian nation."

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For the past seven years, President Bush has hosted the task force at the White House. After he kicks off the national observance there this Thursday, the task force will hold a program on Capitol Hill involving representatives of the three branches of government and the military.

The task force also seeks proclamations each year from the president and from the governors of all 50 states, which are posted on the website. .

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group concerned that religious freedoms not be abridged in the military, has complained that task force events are scheduled for at least six military installations.

In its campaign for inclusiveness, Jews on First has called on its members and other groups to lobby governors to make them aware of the exclusive nature of task force events and to seek a proclamation that encourages diversity of participation.

The Interfaith Alliance, a national voice of the interfaith movement based in Washington, has joined the effort. "The original title was National Day of Prayer and Meditation when President Truman first set it up," says Jay Keller, the alliance's national field director. "We urge folks to let their governors know this doesn't encompass everyone as it should, and to try to take it back so Americans of all beliefs can come together in support of our country."

The Interfaith Alliance of Central California plans to hold its own inclusive prayer event as well as a protest in Fresno. The multifaith group had asked to participate in the task force observance planned for the steps of city hall there but was refused. So the members will conduct a quiet protest at the site, carrying signs that say "One Nation, Many Faiths."

In Camp Hill, Pa., near Harrisburg, religious leaders from various faith traditions will similarly protest outside the Commonwealth Prayer Breakfast, which involves state legislators. In a press release, they said they'll hold a brief prayer service and then read from William Penn's edict of toleration.

Churches, ecumenical organizations, and church-state watchdogs like Americans United (AU) have also picked up the inclusiveness banner. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles is among the numerous California groups that sent letters to lobby Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In Richmond, Va., AU is sponsoring a "Day of Prayer, Reflection, and Reason," dedicated to fostering unity among Americans of various beliefs.

In Columbus, Ohio, the clergy and lay leaders of We Believe Ohio – a diverse group working together on matters of faith and public policy – voted to communicate with the governor on this issue.

"What we're calling for is a press release [from the governor's office] that says in the future we need a more inclusive day of prayer," says the Rev. Tim Ahrens, senior pastor of First Congregational Church in Columbus.

"An inclusive day is essential across the country, but it's going to take a while to catch on," he says. "Like riding a wave to the beach, you may not catch the wave the first time, but we will eventually. We really should be about religious acceptance."