Not all say 'amen' to national prayer day

Staff WriterMay 6, 2010 

Today is supposed to be a time when Americans come together to pray in one voice. Instead, it's turning into a shouting match among splintered voices.

The National Day of Prayer, an annual civic and religious ritual established by Congress in 1952, has become a flashpoint in the national culture wars, pitting evangelical Christians against secularists of various stripes and religious minorities.

Today in Raleigh, the state Capitol will become a battleground of sorts as Christians gather to worship on the south side of the government building while a group of nonreligious people silently protest the prayer event on the north side.

The twin gatherings mirror a larger conflict. Last month, a federal judge in Wisconsin declared the law authorizing the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional, saying it violates the First Amendment's prohibition on government endorsement of religion. The Obama administration said it will appeal the ruling.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Franklin Graham of Boone, son of the Rev. Billy Graham and the national chairman of the event this year, saw his invitation to lead a National Day of Prayer event at the Pentagon revoked after Muslims objected to his criticism of Islam as an "evil" and "wicked" faith.

"A lot of this reflects deeper struggles for what kind of religious face America will have," said Curtis W. Freeman, director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. "There's this anxiety that past understandings are no longer holding sway."

Over the past few decades, the U.S. has added significant numbers of Hispanics, most of whom are Catholic. It has also absorbed Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. And a recent poll by the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life showed 16 percent of Americans have no religion, the fastest-growing segment of the population.

Yet the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a nonprofit organization founded in 1988 and led by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, limits its events to people of "Judeo-Christian" heritage. Only Christians are allowed as state coordinators.

Christians say anyone is free to organize a prayer event outside the task force's purview.

"We clearly have freedom of religion," said Dub Karriker, pastor of Christian Assembly Church in Durham and one of the organizers of today's prayer at the American Tobacco complex. "Everybody has a right to free exercise."

But it is the government's endorsement of prayer that the nonreligious roiled.

Elected leaders from the president to local mayors are fond of signing declarations on National Day of Prayer. President Barack Obama's proclamation calls on Americans to "give thanks for the many blessings God has bestowed on our nation."

"It sends a message that a religious life is the right life and a nonreligious life is not," said Mark Zumbach of Cary, president of the Triangle Freethought Society, which is planning a silent protest at the Capitol.

Zumbach said prayer is fine so long as government isn't involved in it.

"Nobody's saying individuals can't take the time to pray," Zumbach said. "But we do see a problem when government starts endorsing it."

Christians counter that atheists want to remove every mention of God from the public square, creating a kind of enforced secularism.

"People who are involved in this want to kick God out completely," said Ralph Thompson, director of Emergency Chaplains in Durham.

This back and forth worries people who value both camps.

"Religion can be a vital and unifying part of America," said Freeman of Duke. "My greatest fear is that it will be something that divides us in ways people can't even talk about."

yshimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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