President Obama is distancing himself from the National Day of Prayer by nixing a formal early morning service and not attending a large Catholic prayer breakfast the next morning.
All Mr. Obama will do for the National Day of Prayer, which is Thursday, is sign a proclamation honoring the day, which originated in 1952 when Congress set aside the first Thursday in May for the observance.
For the past eight years, President George W. Bush invited selected Christian and Jewish leaders to the White House East Room, where he typically would give a short speech and several leaders offered prayers.
Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday that the president is simply reverting back to pre-Bush administration practice.
“Prayer is something the president does every day,” he said. “We’re doing a proclamation, which I know that many administrations in the past have done.”
Pressed by reporters as to the lack of a formal ceremony, Mr. Gibbs said the proclamation was Mr. Obama’s choice.
“That’s the way the president will publicly observe National Prayer Day - privately, he’ll pray as he does every day,” Mr. Gibbs said.
Shirley Dobson, chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Committee, said the group was “disappointed in the lack of participation by the Obama administration.”
“At this time in our country’s history, we would hope our president would recognize more fully the importance of prayer,” said Mrs. Dobson, who occupied a prominent seat in the front row for the ceremonies during the Bush administration.
Although the annual East Room events started with Mr. Bush, President Reagan hosted a Rose Garden event in 1982 and President George H.W. Bush scheduled a breakfast in 1989.
President Clinton did not host any special observances, according to the National Day of Prayer task force.
Some evangelicals said they were not surprised by Mr. Obama’s decision.
“For those of us who have our doubts about Obama’s faith, no, we did not expect him to have the service,” said Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. “But as president, he should put his own lack of faith aside and live up to the office.”
Referencing a remark the president made at a recent press conference in Turkey that Americans “do not consider ourselves a Christian nation,” she added: “That was projecting his own beliefs, but not reflecting what the majority of Americans feel. It’s almost like Obama is trying to remake America into his own image. This is not a rejection of Shirley Dobson; it’s a rejection of the concept that America is a spiritual nation and its foundation is Judeo-Christian.”
David Brody, White House correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, said in a column that, “within the conservative evangelical community, there was never any real expectation that the White House would hold an event.”
However, the White House did host an April 9 Passover Seder for family and friends - the first time a president has hosted that Jewish religious meal.
But the president passed up the fifth annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, scheduled for the Washington Hilton and expected to have 1,300 participants.
Joe Cella, a spokesman for the effort, said the White House never asked for Mr. Obama to attend.
Mr. Bush did ask to come and always made a few brief remarks. But the new president, Mr. Cella said, would not have been allowed to speak because of a 2004 directive from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops saying that public figures who have taken positions opposing Catholic doctrine should not be publicly honored.
“We’d host him graciously, but we’d not give him a platform to speak,” Mr. Cella said.
All major presidential candidates were invited to attend last year, he added, but none responded.
For this year’s prayer breakfast, Catholic members of the administration have been invited. They include Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
None has responded, Mr. Cella said.
The keynote speech will be given by Archbishop Raymond Burke, the former St. Louis prelate who now heads the Signatura, the Vatican’s top court. He has recommended that pro-choice Catholic politicians such as Mrs. Sebelius not be allowed to receive Communion.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is scheduled to speak.
Despite the White House snub, National Day of Prayer ceremonies are still slated from 9 a.m. to noon in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill. Speakers include former NFL all-pro running back Shaun Alexander and Dick Eastman of Every Home for Christ.
An estimated 40,000 coordinators and volunteers will host locally organized events nationwide at courthouses, state capitols, city halls, parks and school flagpoles.
Nathan Diament, an Orthodox Jewish leader who has attended National Day of Prayer events in the East Room, said co-religionists should not find fault with the president.
“While some will no doubt criticize the Obama White House for this decision, we think that is inappropriate,” he said, “and, moreover, not in keeping with the purpose of the observance which is to unify Americans through a national moment of reflection and aspiration to higher purposes.”
Last fall, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Mrs. Dobson and the Bush administration over the National Day of Prayer.
The lawsuit, which has been changed to name Mr. Obama and Mr. Gibbs, the press secretary, says state governors and the U.S. government should not follow task-force directives on themes, wording, prayers and Scriptures for the event.
• Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.
Julia Duin is the Times’ religion editor. She has a master’s degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry (an Episcopal seminary) and has covered the beat for three decades. Before coming to The Washington Times, she worked for five newspapers, including a stint as a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle and a year as city editor at the ...
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