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.
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.
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."
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."