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On National Day of Prayer, plenty of politics

National Day of Prayer activities may have more political undertones than usual this year, as religious groups take aim at what they see as President Obama's attacks on religious freedom. 

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Mitt Romney, poised to become the Republican nominee for president, released his own statement of prayer. “Today I join with people of all faiths to express devotion and gratitude to the Lord, who has so richly blessed us," he said. His concluding phrase appeared to be a nod to the task force evangelicals, calling on "the Lord [to] keep us strong and free and we will remain one nation under God."

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Groups including the the Freedom From Religion Foundation protest against the prayer day as an imposition of religion by government. A few days ago the American Humanist Association praised Rep. Pete Stark (D) of California for embracing the alternative concept of a National Day of Reason, on the same day as the National Day of Prayer.

A year ago, a federal appeals court overturned a ruling that the National Day of Prayer was unconstitutional.

Mr. Obama took an effort to be inclusive of the many views Americans have on religion, saying that the nation's democracy "respects the beliefs and protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience."

At the same time, some critics say the Obama administration hasn't stood up strongly enough for religious freedom.

The Catholic News Agency, for example, quotes legal expert Robert Tyler of Advocates for Faith and Freedom, raising questions about Obama's statement supporting a "democracy that respects the beliefs and protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain....” Mr. Tyler said this could be understood as supporting freedom of worship but not freedom to fully to practice a religion.

That distinction came up, in the context of the Roman Catholic faith, when the Obama administration issued a mandate that employer health insurance cover contraceptive services.

The idea of an annual day of prayer was enshrined in law under President Truman (D) in 1952, and President Reagan (R) signed a 1988 law calling for the event to be held on the first Thursday of each May.

Prior to that, leaders including the Continental Congress and Abraham Lincoln on occasion proclaimed days of prayer for specific reasons.

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