National Day of Prayer is on, despite court ruling

President Obama has issued a National Day of Prayer proclamation but will not hold an interfaith observance at the White House, as President Bush did. The administration is appealing a ruling last month that the official day of prayer is unconstitutional.

By , Staff writer

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    In this April 29 photo, Ted Crabb, husband of US District Judge Barbara Crabb, holds a picture of her being sworn in as a magistrate outside the University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Union. In her ruling last month, Crabb said the law creating the tradition being observed Thursday, the National Day of Prayer, is an unconstitutional call to religious action.
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Thursday, May 6, is the National Day of Prayer, as proclaimed by President Obama. But this year, the annual ritual that began in 1952 is taking place amid controversy.

Last month, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that the US law directing the president to proclaim such a day violates the First Amendment, which prohibits government establishment of religion. US District Judge Barbara Crabb also said it was OK to proceed with the National Day of Prayer, pending appeals.

On April 22, the Obama administration appealed Judge Crabb’s ruling to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

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But, like last year, Mr. Obama himself will not hold any official prayer day observance at the White House. His predecessor, George W. Bush, had held an annual interfaith observance in the East Room of the White House.

Last year, when Obama decided to limit the White House’s involvement to a proclamation, an urban legend was born: Obama had “canceled” the National Day of Prayer. Not so, the White House said. The myth-busting website Snopes.com has a page devoted to the topic. It’s not that the White House is opposed to prayer, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said last year. “Prayer is something that the president does every day,” he added, noting that it is private.

The National Day of Prayer Task Force, a privately funded group with strong ties to the Evangelical Christian movement, is fighting back against the judge’s ruling and circulating a petition.

“The National Day of Prayer provides an opportunity for all Americans to pray voluntarily according to their own faith – it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” task force chairwoman Shirley Dobson said in a statement.

Groups around the country will hold observances on Thursday marking the National Day of Prayer, as in years past. Though the tradition was formalized in 1952, with a congressional resolution calling on the president to proclaim such a day, there were national days of prayer long before then.

Opponents of the day of prayer argue that the proclamation makes them feel as if the government is telling them to engage in a religious activity. Atheists, in particular, object to a government prayer proclamation that assumes a universal belief in God.

Obama’s proclamation designating May 6, 2010, as a National Day of Prayer acknowledges the religious diversity of the United States – within the universe of monotheism.

“I call upon the citizens of our Nation to pray, or otherwise give thanks, in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and I invite all people of faith to join me in asking for God’s continued guidance, grace, and protection as we meet the challenges before us,” the proclamation states.

Religion was a complicated issue in the Obama presidential campaign, and has remained so in his presidency. During the campaign, his long-time pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, seemed to threaten Obama’s chances at winning the Democratic nomination after videotapes emerged showing the pastor using incendiary language. Obama then delivered a memorable speech on faith that appeared to put the issue to rest.

Obama grew up with no faith tradition but embraced Christianity as an adult. Now, as president, he regularly delivers sermon-like speeches, in addition to delivering euglogies, as he did for civil rights leader Dorothy Height last week. On Feb. 4, Obama spoke about the power of prayer to foster civility and bridge divisions, in an address to the National Prayer Breakfast. But Obama and his family have not been regular church-goers since moving to Washington.

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