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Spiritual Sore Point

Day Set Aside for Prayer, Reflection Becomes Focus of Controversy Between Critics, Christian Organizers


Many Americans will take time on Thursday to pray--perhaps for the beleaguered refugees of Kosovo, for grief-stricken families of Littleton, Colo., or simply for a better world. For decades the National Day of Prayer has been set aside for spiritual reflection.

But although the event is nondenominational, the National Day of Prayer in recent years has become largely identified with a particular brand of faith: politically conservative and Christian. Many organizers offer no apologies for not trying to accommodate Muslims, Jews or Americans of other faiths.

"It definitely is a Christian event and goes back to the origins of our nation," said David Manne, senior pastor at Calvary Chapel Newport Coast. "We're a nation that was founded and grounded in biblical principles."

Critics are more blunt: "The day has been hijacked by the religious right," said Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister in Washington D.C. who serves as executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Others have a broader objection to the appearance of government sponsorship of the event, which is often marked with prayer meetings at city halls.

"This isn't supposed to be a theocracy," said Ron Barrier, national spokesman for American Atheists, based in Cranford, New Jersey. "We would like to see the government getting out of the cheerleading role for American Christianity."

Taking a day to pray together is a tradition that, for America, has a long history. The First Continental Congress declared a day of prayer for the colonies in 1775. Abraham Lincoln signed a proclamation setting a date of "humiliation, fasting and prayer" during the Civil War in 1863. Congress unanimously passed a joint resolution in 1952 establishing a Day of Prayer as a federal law. And in 1988, Congress officially set the day as the first Thursday in May.

In recent years, a nonprofit group out of Colorado Springs, Colo., the National Day of Prayer Task Force, has been a guiding force behind the event.

The task force is led by Shirley Dobson, wife of conservative Christian psychiatrist and radio personality James Dobson, founder of the Focus on the Family organization.

Leaders of the group maintain that other faiths are free to create their own coalitions to celebrate the day in their own way.

"Non-Christians can have their own observances," said Jim Weidmann, vice chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force.

Organizers expect a record turnout of public piety this year because of the recent tragedy in Littleton, Colo., which has reinvigorated national debate about religion and public schools.

"Prayer is doing a lot of healing in Colorado and I don't think there's a lot of debate whether it's appropriate," said Pastor Doug Green of North Hills Church in Brea. "If you've had bullets flying over your head, you may want to investigate the possibility of God."

Not all celebrations linked to the National Day of Prayer are limited to Christians. A prayer breakfast held Friday in Newport Beach, for example, included such speakers as Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Bat Yam in Newport Beach.

Miller said he endorses a day of prayer sponsored by the government. His priority is to represent Judaism, a minority religion, amid the flurry of Christian-sponsored gatherings.

"The challenge in a democracy is to find that balance of infusing spirituality into our national life while not trampling upon the rights and sensibilities of the citizenry," Miller said.

In Orange County, celebrations include a Thursday service at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. The 12:15 p.m. service will include a special remembrance for the families of students killed by two armed teens in Littleton.

Other events include:

* A prayer service sponsored by the Brea Ministerial Assn. at 7 a.m. on the steps of the Brea Civic Center. Prayer services will be held throughout the city during the day.

* A 13-hour day of prayer, beginning at 7 a.m., at Mariners Church, 5001 Newport Coast Drive in Irvine.

* A prayer breakfast held by educators at 6:30 a.m. at the Mission Viejo Country Club.

* A community prayer at noon at Newport Beach City Hall.

* An ecumenical prayer service in front of the Laguna Beach City Hall's flag pole at noon.

* A family service from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at Saddleback Community Church, 1 Saddleback Parkway in Lake Forest.

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