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Obama defends, curtails National Day of Prayer
By RYAN J. FOLEY | Associated Press Writer
12:11 PM CDT, May 6, 2009
MADISON, Wis. - President Barack Obama is scaling back White House plans for Thursday's National Day of Prayer even as his administration defends the tradition in federal court in Wisconsin.
Obama's position has disappointed Christian conservatives, who want the president to do more to mark the day, and an atheist group that wants him to end the tradition.
The Obama administration has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which claims the day violates the separation of church and state. In a rare alliance, 31 mostly Republican members of Congress and a prominent Christian legal group are joining the administration to fight the lawsuit.
Congress established the day in 1952 and in 1988 set the first Thursday in May as the day for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans to pray.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that Obama would issue such a proclamation Thursday but not hold any public events with religious leaders as President George W. Bush did.
Gibbs said Obama prays privately and his plan for the day was in line with those of past presidents. Still, Obama drew a rebuke from the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private group that promotes prayer events around the country.
"We are disappointed in the lack of participation by the Obama Administration," said task force chairwoman Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. "At this time in our country's history, we would hope our President would recognize more fully the importance of prayer."
The task force estimates 2 million Americans attended more than 40,000 events marking the day last year.
Meanwhile, Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-Director Annie Laurie Gaylor welcomed Obama's more subdued observance but said she has been shocked by his administration's strong defense of the day in court.
The Madison-based group of 12,000 atheists and agnostics filed the lawsuit near the end of Bush's second term in U.S. District Court in Madison. The suit asks a judge to declare the law unconstitutional and to order presidents and governors to stop issuing prayer proclamations.
The lawsuit also claimed federal and state governments work too closely with Dobson's task force to promote the day and give it a Christian bent. Among other things, the task force asks governors and mayors to issue prayer proclamations and suggests specific Bible verses and themes to quote in them.
The Obama administration asked U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb to dismiss the case in March. The administration argued the group has no legal standing to sue, said the tradition's roots date to 1775 and that most presidents have invoked faith in a higher power.
It also said the day does not promote religion and argued that preventing presidents from issuing a proclamation would unfairly restrict how they communicate with Americans.
"It was very right-wing," Gaylor said of the administration's arguments. "One would expect that under a Reagan or a Bush, but I did not expect that under an Obama."
She said the day disenfranchises the millions of Americans who do not believe in God or pray and suggested Obama implement a "national day of service" instead.
Thirty-one members of Congress, including House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio and Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, have filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the lawsuit. They call the prayer day "deeply embedded in the tradition and history of this country."
The Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based group of Christian lawyers that is representing Shirley Dobson and the task force, has made similar arguments in asking for the case to be dismissed. Crabb is expected to rule on the motions in coming weeks.