Day Of Prayer Becomes Culture War Skirmish As presidents have done every year since 1952, President Obama on Thursday will issue a proclamation urging people to "turn to God in prayer and meditation." But recently, a federal judge put a little damper on the National Day of Prayer and set activists on both sides of the issue in overdrive.
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Day Of Prayer Becomes Culture War Skirmish

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Day Of Prayer Becomes Culture War Skirmish

Day Of Prayer Becomes Culture War Skirmish

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

So that's some of the political landscape that President Obama faces right now. Tomorrow, the president will do what chief executives have done for decades. He'll mark the National Day of Prayer with a special proclamation. He'll do that even though a judge has said it's unconstitutional. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: If past is prologue, about 200 residents of Mount Prospect, Illinois, will cram into a banquet hall at 7:30 on Thursday morning. They'll eat, they'll sing and mainly, they'll pray for the leaders of the nation, the state and the town's mayor, Irvana Wilks.

MONTAGNE: We all fall short, especially when we're elected officials, and we all really need those prayers.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Wilks will be there along with other Christians, Jews, Muslims and Baha'is. She says the annual breakfast lives on in people's memories.

MONTAGNE: They'll even mention to me like, oh, I loved that speaker. It was so inspirational, or the songs in the prayer breakfast. And people will say, I just wouldn't miss it. I just wouldn't miss it.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: They may have to, if Annie Laurie Gaylor has her way. Gaylor, who runs the Freedom From Religion Foundation, says the National Day of Prayer is nothing less than government endorsement of religion.

MONTAGNE: It makes me feel like the president is telling me that I'm supposed to believe in a God, and there's something wrong with me. And even if I don't believe in a God, I'm still supposed to pray.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: With this legal victory in hand, Gaylor wrote every governor and the mayor of every city with more than 30,000 people. She urged them to abandon the prayer events this year, saying they disenfranchise those who do not believe in God.

MONTAGNE: We also quoted the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus points out that if you pray, you should pray in secret to your father; otherwise, you're a hypocrite. We have both the Bible and the Constitution in our favor.

MONTAGNE: This really does amount to an attack upon the religious heritage of Americans.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Michael Calhoun is a spokesman for the National Day of Prayer Task Force, an evangelical group. He says setting aside a day for prayer and meditation is a tradition that dates back to the Founding Fathers. And his group is mobilizing thousands of volunteers to save it.

MONTAGNE: It's time for Americans to take a stand and say, enough is enough. No longer will an atheist in Wisconsin undermine a tradition for millions of Americans, who simply want to pray for their nation.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Attorney Michael Johnson, at the conservative legal group Alliance Defense Fund, believes the decision will be overturned, especially if it gets to the U.S. Supreme Court.

MONTAGNE: Their whole case is premised upon the idea that just because they claim to be offended by it, they should be able to challenge the National Day of Prayer statute and have it struck down. We disagree with that. The First Amendment simply doesn't provide any of us with a right not to be offended.

MONTAGNE: I have no problem with having a day of prayer, as long as it's not government-sponsored.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Cecil Bothwell is an atheist and city council member in Asheville, North Carolina. He says he's not bothered by the two privately sponsored prayer events that will take place in his town on Thursday, because the government is not endorsing or paying for them. Bothwell does not think politicians will start shunning the day of prayer - at least, not right away.

MONTAGNE: However, quietly, I've had other politicians come to me and say, I agree with you, but I'm afraid to say anything in public.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Annie Laurie Gaylor thinks that's beginning to change. She says now that the number of secular people in the U.S. has greatly increased, her arguments are gaining traction.

MONTAGNE: And it's not that we're feeling emboldened, it's just that there's more of us. And we are offended and injured when our government tells us that we have to pray, and when to pray and why to pray.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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