MADISON, Wis. — The White House is planning a muted observance of Thursday's National Day of Prayer, a response that has disappointed both Christian conservatives and an atheist group that wants to end the tradition.
Congress established the day in 1952 and in 1988 set the first Thursday in May as the day for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans to pray.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said President Barack Obama would issue such a proclamation Thursday but not hold any public events with religious leaders as President George W. Bush did.
Obama's decision drew a rebuke from the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private group that promotes prayer events around the country. The task force estimates 2 million Americans attended more than 40,000 events marking the day last year.
"We are disappointed in the lack of participation by the Obama administration," said task force chairwoman Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson. "At this time in our country's history, we would hope our President would recognize more fully the importance of prayer."
The debate over the day has landed in federal court in Wisconsin. The Obama administration has asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which claims the day violates the separation of church and state.
In a rare alliance, 31 mostly Republican members of Congress and a prominent Christian legal group are joining the administration to fight the lawsuit.
Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-Director Annie Laurie Gaylor welcomed Obama's more scaled back observance but said she has been shocked by his administration's strong defense of the day in court.
The Madison-based group of 12,000 atheists and agnostics filed the lawsuit near the end of Bush's second term. It asks a judge to declare the law unconstitutional and to order presidents and governors to stop issuing prayer proclamations.
The Obama administration asked U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb to dismiss the case in March. The administration argued the group has no legal standing to sue, said the tradition's roots date to 1775 and that most presidents have invoked faith in a higher power.
It also said the day does not promote religion and argued that preventing presidents from issuing a proclamation would unfairly restrict how they communicate with Americans.
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