For the first time in nearly two decades, the White House has declined to participate in the congressionally authorized National Day of Prayer beyond issuing the standard proclamation.
That decision led evangelical leader James Dobson, founder of the Focus on the Family organization, to say he was "disappointed." Christian leaders also say they were not invited to visit the president in the White House, as has occasionally happened in the past.
Dobson and others viewed the absence of White House involvement as an indication the Obama administration sought to downplay the National Day of Prayer's significance.
"I would just like this country to remember its foundation, to remember its heritage and honor it, especially on the day set aside by George Washington in the beginning for prayer in this country," Dobson told The Washington Post. "And I would hope that that would have occurred."
Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., also criticized the administration's decision not to participate.
"The National Day of Prayer is important for people all across the country and I think the president missed a wonderful opportunity," Forbes told the Post. "Not only did he not have any ceremony himself, he did not send any representatives from the White House to this event."
The National Day of Prayer has been held on the first Thursday of each May since the Reagan administration to recognize the importance of prayer in American life. It was first authorized by Congress in 1952.
President Obama did however sign a proclamation recognizing the National Day of Prayer, as presidents before him have done for over half a century.
"I call upon Americans to pray in thanksgiving for our freedoms and blessings and to ask for God's continued guidance, grace, and protection for this land that we love," stated the proclamation Obama signed.
The Obama administration may find itself in a tight corner politically, given that it has joined a coalition led by Republicans and Christian advocacy groups to fight a lawsuit filed in October by the anti-religious Freedom From Religion Foundation organization.
That group wants the day of prayer banned altogether as an unconstitutional establishment of religion. In March, the Obama administration asked a district court to dismiss the case.
The tradition that atheist groups want to end dates back to 1775, when the Continental Congress issued a call for "prayer in forming a new nation."
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