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National Day of Prayer, A Largely Christian Event, Grows In Popularity As It Stirs Debate

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Selena Lockwood of Byram, Miss., holds her hand up in a prayerful salute during the National Day of Prayer at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., last year.
Selena Lockwood of Byram, Miss., holds her hand up in a prayerful salute during the National Day of Prayer at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., last year.

Hundreds of Texans are expected to come to downtown Dallas Thursday for an eight-hour string of faith-based celebrations that will include Sikh drummers, Islamic prayers, Hindu singers, a Jewish cantor and Methodist and Baptist congregations.

It may sound like a standard interfaith event, another of the many that have become popular in increasingly diverse American cities, but the revelry at the the city's Thanks-Giving Square in observance of the National Day of Prayer is unique in how far it's departed from its Protestant roots.

The National Day of Prayer, which has been observed on the first Thursday in May for 24 years, is still a largely Christian event, in which millions of Americans from thousands of churches across the country will participate, bowing their heads to God in prayer on the day that traces its history to the nation's earliest years. There will be Bible read-a-thons in front of city halls, police officers will pay tribute to the nation's first-responders at churches, and the devout will descend upon courthouse steps across American cities to grace the buildings with prayer.

But the event, designated via presidential proclamation, has increasingly faced accusations of encouraging an uncomfortable mingling of church and state and being too narrowly focused in practice on Christianity.

On one side, secular humanists and atheists have responded by promoting their own event, Thursday's National Day of Reason. Now in its ninth year, the nonreligious celebration has expanded to more than a dozen cities, where it's observed with blood drives, training on pro-secular policy lobbying and voter registration drives, as well as social events.

On the other hand, believers such as those in Dallas have tried to change the day's legacy by broadening its appeal. The Thanks-Giving Foundation, which typically observes the National Day of Prayer with an interfaith breakfast or luncheon, has made this year's event into a day-long festival, where more than half the events are purposefully devoted to non-Christians.

"We believe in the idea that gratitude is something that all faith traditions and all cultures value," said Chris Slaughter, a Christian Scientist who is president of the Thanks-Giving Foundation, which will be celebrating its 30th National Day of Prayer. "It can be used as a beginning point of conversation to learn about each other to gain respect and understanding."

That's a stark contrast to the theme of the Colorado Springs-based National Day of Prayer Task Force, one of the largest prayer event organizations. The group, which is chaired by Shirley Dobson, wife of evangelical group Focus on the Family's founder James Dobson, aims to "preserve America's Christian heritage," according a statement on its website.

A representative from the National Day of Prayer Task Force did not reply to a request for comment, but the website includes listings for thousands of events across the nation on Thursday. Representatives for the organization have said in interviews that interest in hosting Christian prayer events has increased by 35 percent this year.

John Inazu, a law professor who specializes in the First Amendment at Washington University in St. Louis, said the increasing popularity of Christian and interfaith National Day of Prayer events and the National Day of Reason reflects a growing conflict over the role of religion in public life.

Inazu pointed out that it's been 50 years since organized prayer in public schools was declared unconstitutional in Engel v. Vitale, a landmark Supreme Court case, but that laws that allow for voluntary prayer or moments of silence in schools and initiatives to have prayers in government buildings and in public spaces have gotten more popular.

"Some religious believers will likely use the Day of Prayer to call attention to what they view as a regrettable and consequential court decision," Inazu said. "But there's an important distinction between official school or government prayer or a public school or public space that allows prayer. The key is that it's voluntary and the guidance is made as non-sectarian and as general as possible."

The National Day of Prayer has met few legal challenges since it was made official in 1952 by President Harry Truman, who left it to subsequent presidents to decide its date each year. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation that set its observation to the first Thursday in May.

Two years ago, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that the government-sponsored National Day of Prayer violated the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing religion. After an appeal from President Barack Obama's administration, a higher court reversed the decision last year and ruled that the government proclamation did not require anyone's participation.

As is customary, Obama issued a proclamation this week on the Day of Prayer in which he asked "all citizens of our Nation, as their own faith directs them, to join me in giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy" and called for "individuals of all faiths to pray for guidance, grace, and protection for our great Nation."

But while President George W. Bush hosted interfaith events at the White House to observe the day, Obama has not publicly observed the day and has no such events scheduled Thursday.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesman, said in an email that Obama "has been honored to celebrate prayer and faith through events like his recent Easter Prayer Breakfast, an annual event for Christian leaders begun in the Obama Administration, and speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast ... As a devoted Christian, the President prays daily and deeply appreciates the important role that prayer plays in the lives of millions of Americans."

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