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(RNS) For years, the annual National Day of Prayer observances on Capitol Hill had become almost routine affairs as mostly conservative Christian groups bowed with legislators to pray for the soul of America.
But this year, after a federal judge ruled the law creating the day is unconstitutional, Thursday’s (May 6) events took on an air of defiance as organizers accused nonbelievers of threatening their religious freedom.
“I think it is waking people up across this land,” said evangelist Franklin Graham, the honorary chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, who was disinvited from Pentagon observances because of his remarks on Islam.
“I think people realize, many Christians, how we’re losing our religious freedoms a little bit every day and if we don’t stand up and exercise the freedoms that God has given us in this country, we will lose them.”
Graham began the day praying on the sidewalk outside the Pentagon, after military officials withdrew his invitation to speak because his comments about Islam — he’s called it an “evil and wicked religion” — were “problematic.”
Across the country Thursday, organizers said more than 40,000 events were scheduled to be held at parks, churches and courthouse steps — more than any other year and an increase of more than 15 percent from last year.
Shirley Dobson, leader of the task force and the wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, noted that the nationwide observances are voluntary.
“Citizens can choose to pray or not to pray,” she said. “No one is required to participate, despite what the opponents of public prayer say.”
She was thankful that the Obama administration is appealing the April 15 decision by Wisconsin federal judge Barbara Crabb — who ruled observances could continue as her decision is appealed. Dobson said the Pentagon’s rescinded invitation was “dishonoring” to Graham and his son, Edward, an Army captain now serving in Afghanistan.
“This situation that’s come up the last several weeks serves as yet another indication of the relentless assaults against our religious liberty,” she said.
After winning the first legal round, the Freedom from Religion Foundation urged mayors and governors not to endorse the National Day of Prayer this year. It also placed billboards in Colorado Springs, Colo., home to the prayer day task force’s headquarters, declaring “God & Government a Dangerous Mix: Keep State & Church Separate.”
In his keynote address at the Cannon House Office Building, Graham acknowledged that people “of other faiths” might hear his message but he could only speak as a “minister of the gospel.”
“I don’t want to be offensive to anyone,” he said, “but I only know how to pray and I only know how to preach the way that the Bible instructs me.”
Graham said the nation has “committed mass murder” through abortions and “taken God out of our schools.” He predicted God’s judgment on the country and its citizens for not living up to divine standards.
“I’m guilty; our nation is guilty,” he said. “But our hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The printed program called for “executive branch remarks,” but no representative of the White House spoke. The audience of about 400 prayed for the White House, turning in its direction down Pennsylvania Avenue and reaching out their hands in prayer.
“I thank you that President Obama has issued a proclamation, a powerful proclamation for this day of prayer,” said Dave Butts, president of Harvest Prayer Ministries of Terre Haute, Ind. “I thank you, Lord, that he is instructing the Justice Department to take a stand against this judicial ruling that would declare this day unconstitutional.”
While Obama issued a proclamation– as he did last year — he has not continued the tradition of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who held an observance at the White House with task force leaders during his presidency.
“Prayer has been a sustaining way for many Americans of diverse faiths to express their most cherished beliefs, and thus we have long deemed it fitting and proper to publicly recognize the importance of prayer on this day across the nation,” Obama said in his proclamation.
The annual observance is personal for the Graham family. Ailing evangelist Billy Graham encouraged Congress to enact a law about the prayer day when he held a crusade in Washington in 1952. Congress passed the law later that year and, in 1988, made it more specific, calling for it to be marked on the first Thursday of May.
On Capitol Hill, some attendees said the court ruling made it more important for them to attend this year’s observance.
“I think that a lot of people believe that our Christian heritage is under siege,” said Barry Blenis, a banker and Baptist from Albany, N.Y.
“This country was established for freedom of religion, primarily Christian religion and now it’s like the minority, 3 or 4 percent is saying `Well, I’m offended’ so you can’t do this or do that.”

Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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