How Inclusive is the National Day of Prayer?

April 30, 2008

Author: Jane Lampman

Source: The Christian Science Monitor

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.