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No National Day of Prayer service at White House

Obama's decision disappoints evangelicals. Under President George W. Bush, the event was held at the White House with political fanfare.

May 08, 2009|Johanna Neuman

WASHINGTON — For years, it has been a staple of the White House calendar.

On the first Thursday of May, dedicated as the National Day of Prayer, President George W. Bush hosted an ecumenical service in the East Room.

(The event is different from the National Prayer Breakfast, held elsewhere in Washington on the first Thursday of February.)

President Obama opted not to have a service in the White House this year.

"Prayer is something that the president does every day," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, adding that Obama would sign a proclamation to recognize the day. "I think the president understands, in his own life and in his family's life, the role that prayer plays."

President Truman signed the first declaration of an annual National Day of Prayer, and President Reagan established it as the first Thursday in May.

Under Bush, the day was a political event, confirming that religion was a core tenet of Republican politics.

Prominent evangelicals, including National Day of Prayer Task Force Chairwoman Shirley Dobson and her husband, Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, expressed disappointment in Obama's decision.

"At this time in our country's history, we would hope our president would recognize more fully the importance of prayer," Shirley Dobson said in a statement.

Obama was the first president to mention nonbelievers in an inaugural address: "For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and nonbelievers."

Nonbelievers took heart at Obama's decision but urged him to go further.

"It's not his job to tell people to pray," David Silverman, national spokesman for American Atheists, told CNN.

"We are very happy he did away with the George W. Bush-era celebrations and party, but we wish he wouldn't do it at all."

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Neuman writes for The Times' blog on national politics, Top of the Ticket.

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