Correction to This Article
In the ombudsman's column on Sunday, James Dobson was incorrectly identified as a minister. Mr. Dobson, founder and chairman of the group Focus on the Family, is a psychologist.

Anger Over a Prayer Day Portrayal

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, May 13, 2007

Reverence and irreverence don't mix well, especially when the irreverence of Washington Sketch columnist Dana Milbank is directed at participants in National Day of Prayer events.

Complaints were expected about Milbank's May 4 column, in which he used his razor wit on the U.S. Capitol Bible Marathon, National Day of Prayer events and an atheists' demonstration.

To his detractors, Milbank was condescending, intent on ridiculing them and inaccurate in describing the events. To Milbank, National Day of Prayer events are political, not religious, and are owed no special reverence. But readers knew about the events only from Milbank's spoof; no news or feature story dealt with the seriousness of the participants or what the events meant to them.

Tom Eyre of the District attended the marathon and said he thought the column was "unnecessarily cynical. I am just a guy that loves God and loves the Bible. . . . I was just saddened that what was such a significant event for me had been covered in a way that didn't reveal that to the public."

The National Day of Prayer was established by a 1952 joint resolution of Congress. The National Day of Prayer Task Force is headed by Shirley Dobson, wife of the Rev. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group influential in Republican politics.

The Bible Marathon's executive directors are the Rev. Michael Hall and his wife, Terry. Hall, the pastor of Peoples' Church on Capitol Hill, said he is a "lifelong Democrat," as are most of his Pentecostal church members, who were marathon volunteers. Most are African Americans.

The column made much of the fact that few of the 600 chairs near the podium were filled on the marathon's last day and of the sparse attendance at an atheists' rally and a news conference by Christian organizations in front of the Supreme Court.

Milbank took a swipe at conservative blogger Jeff Gannon, who attended the Christian events. Milbank saw him as a spokesman; Gannon and organizers said he was not. Milbank said Gannon was at the Bible Marathon's information table, wearing a nametag with the group's logo and the word "communications" on it.

Milbank reminded readers that Gannon gave up credentials as a White House reporter for a conservative Web site after it was found that he had posted naked pictures of himself on gay escort Web sites. The marathon was not meant to draw large crowds, Gannon said. It is a participatory event in which people come and go over five days and read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. A news release said thousands were expected to attend; the Web site said hundreds were there. Hall said about 200 people were there May 3 -- but not when Milbank was.

Gannon said he told Milbank that the chairs were primarily for the ceremony ending the National Day of Prayer on Thursday, not for the Bible Marathon. The permits for both events were in the name of the marathon.

Milbank wrote that hardly anyone showed for the "Christian street theater" -- a news conference at the Supreme Court "scheduled" by the Rev. Patrick Mahoney, president of the District-based Christian Defense Coalition. Mahoney said he did not schedule the event; a news release said he was a participant. Mahoney said the crowd was small because Supreme Court rules limit the number of event participants. He did not dispute Milbank's writing that few media representatives were there.

Is the National Day of Prayer a political event? Not overtly, but it's certainly dominated by Republicans. Was Gannon a spokesman or involved in media outreach? That's murky. I wish that Milbank had talked to the Halls as well. Was it fair to bring up Gannon's past? Yes, his past was a big news story, and it will probably be mentioned in every story about a book by Gannon, which he said will be published in September. Gannon is a member of Hall's church; Hall says, "We believe in redemption."

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