National Day of Prayer has broad support — and controversy

By Joey Ferguson

Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, May 4 2011 11:54 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY— While religious people across the country will gather today for the National Day of Prayer, not everyone likes the annual event.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, for example, filed a lawsuit in 2008 against the federal government to stop the Day of Prayer, on the ground that it violates principles of a separation between church and state, which led to a ruling that devoting a day to prayer as a national holiday was unconstitutional. And while a U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the ruling last month, the event is not without controversy.

The FFRF is particularly concerned with the pairing of groups like Standing Together, a coalition of Utah evangelical churches, and the state government. Today, Standing Together is hosting an event at 6:30 p.m. at the Utah state Capitol.

The FFRF sent out letters to elected officials in opposition to their participation in the day. One letter written by Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, co-directors of FFRF, was to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

"The Utah prayer event is contentious and divisive because of the evangelical slant," said Gaylor and Baker. "This event excludes not only nonreligious but also non-evangelical Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, etc."

Pastor Greg Johnson, the president and founder of Standing Together and a state coordinator for the National Day of Prayer Task Force, said he is familiar with these claims.

A common criticism of the National Day of Prayer is that it has an evangelical slant, which Johnson says he's not ashamed of.

He said that though everyone is invited to attend the events, the events ran by Standing Together are evangelically based. "We do not believe that there is a generic God that answers to all religions," said Johnson.

Despite the controversy behind the event, it still has broad support. President Barrack Obama released an official proclamation on April 30 dedicating the day to national prayer.

"I invite all citizens of our nation, as their own faith or conscience directs them, to join me in giving thanks for the many blessings we enjoy, and I ask all people of faith to join me in asking God for guidance, mercy, and protection for our nation," Obama said.

Gov. Herbert also said in a recent proclamation that May 5 is a "day of prayer in Utah" and that the day is a "unifying force for American citizens representing diverse religious backgrounds."

For the FFRF, these sorts of proclamations, are a breach of the governor's duty to religious neutrality. They encouraged the governor to instead promote "freedom of conscience and the separation between religion and government."

Johnson said that his organization's participation in the Capitol events doesn't show governmental bias because it has "just as much right to freedom of speech and assembly."

The Governor's Office also believes that this doesn't reflect any religious favor.

"The Capitol is the people's house," said Isom. "It is a public place and has nothing to do with partisanship."

For other religious leaders outside the evangelical community, the day of prayer is seen as a time of unity. Imam Muhammed Meta of the Islamic Society of Great Salt Lake, for example, believes that if any group takes part in a prayer it is good. He said they may have a representative participating in the events, but they do not limit prayers to a location or time.

Rabbi Benny Zippel of the Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, said that if the National Day of Prayer was slanted towards any religion, he would have a problem with it, though he does believe that the celebration is a good thing.

"The founding fathers of this country were not anti-religious," said Rabbi Zippel. "What I think people are getting confused by is that the founding fathers believed in a freedom of religion, which has unfortunately become misinterpreted as a freedom from religion."

Utah Valley's National Day of Prayer Service: Provo Community United Church in Christ at 7 pm

Community Leadership Breakfast- Downtown Sheraton Hotel at 7:30 pm

National Day of Prayer- Utah State Capital building at 6:30 pm

Email: jferguson@desnews.com

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