Day of prayer marked with dissenting views

May 5, 2011

Supporters marked the 60th annual National Day of Prayer on May 5,
just weeks after a federal appeals court dismissed a suit that
challenged the law creating the day as unconstitutional.

Focus on
the Family founder James Dobson spoke of the "poignant moment" for the
annual gathering on Capitol Hill after a federal court last year had
cast uncertainty about future observances. "Millions of people prayed,
and many of them here in this room, and God heard and answered prayer
and here we are today!" said Dobson, husband of Shirley Dobson,
chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force.

While similar
events took place in churches, on military bases and on courthouse
steps across the country, about 400 people at the Washington observance
prayed for relief from natural disasters and thanked God for the capture
and death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

"We are blessed to
have the best military and the most sophisticated weaponry in the
world," Shirley Dobson said. "They put their lives on the line to assure
that justice was done."

President Obama, who discontinued his
predecessor's annual observances at the White House, nonetheless issued a
proclamation under the 1988 law that designates the first Thursday in
May as the National Day of Prayer.

Church-state separation groups continued to oppose the observances.

"It
is bad manners and worse law for Congress and the president to exhort
citizens to 'turn to God in prayer,' as the 1952 law enacting a National
Day of Prayer does," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, copresident of the
Freedom from Reli­gion Foundation, which recently lost the case about
the observance.

Officials at the Baptist Joint Com­mittee said
official National Day of Prayer declarations are misguided and
unnecessary. "The government shouldn't be in the business of telling the
American people what, where or when to pray or even if they should
pray," said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the 75-year-old
religious liberty organization.

The annual observance does not
represent a cataclysmic breach in the wall of separation between church
and state, added K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint
Committee. "There is little if any coercion of anyone's conscience,"
she said. But she added, "actual coercion" has never been the standard
to judge whether or not government has overstepped its bounds in
establishing religion.

Rep. Allen West (R., Fl.), who said that
the Navy SEALs prayed before entering bin Laden's compound in Pakistan,
de­fended the observances against opposition from advocates of
church-state separation.

"That principle does not apply to
separating me or any of us from our faith and belief in the God of
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob," he said, drawing a standing ovation. "It does
not apply to separating this great nation from its Judeo-Christian
faith heritage."

Task force officials invited former Sen.
Elizabeth Dole to speak "on behalf of" the executive branch, in lieu of a
representative from the current administration. Dole, who served as
secretary of transportation during Ronald Reagan's ad­ministration,
spoke of Reagan's reliance on prayer, support of religious tolerance and
belief in "how good can triumph over evil."  —RNS, ABP