By Adelle M. Banks
Religion News Service
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Every year since 2001, then-President George W. Bush's calendar had been cleared on the first Thursday in May to mark the National Day of Prayer in the White House East Room with prominent evangelicals.
Now the Obama White House is facing questions of inside-the-Beltway etiquette: Should President Obama maintain the open door to conservative critics like James and Shirley Dobson, and if so, should they accept?
Or, will the White House have an official observance at all?
With those questions unanswered less than two weeks before the annual observance, the National Day of Prayer Task Force, headed by Shirley Dobson, is moving ahead with other plans.
"We're not the coordinators of that event," said Brian Toon, vice chairman of the task force. "That's controlled completely by the White House. We have been honored to be guests at the event in the past, but we have not heard a peep from them."
In years past, Toon said, a White House liaison had contacted the ministry at least a month in advance to ask about its participation in the White House events, which featured music, Scripture readings and remarks by the president and Shirley Dobson.
She and her husband, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, had been seated prominently in the front row next to the president and first lady.
The White House, which usually does not officially announce events until shortly before they occur, declined to comment on whether it would even hold an event this year, much less who would be invited.
"Prayer is very important to the president's life," Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said last week. "It's too early to talk about the planning around that."
This year, Dobson's task force has opted to hold its annual event on Capitol Hill in the morning -- at the same time that its representatives are usually at the White House.
"We do pray for the president at our [Capitol Hill] observance, and we have asked for a speaker from the Obama administration, and we're waiting for them to get back to us," Toon said.
He said the group is "not politically inclined" toward either Republicans or Democrats, even though early Obama policy changes -- opening federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and international family planning groups -- have riled Christian conservatives.
The task force's work has been criticized in recent years by those who say that the observances have become events for evangelical Christians. Several interfaith groups this week wrote to Obama saying that members of Dobson's group are "exclusionists" who have "taken over" the National Day of Prayer. Leaders of the Interfaith Alliance and Jews on First asked the president to endorse an "inclusive" prayer day.
Task force representatives counter that their events reflect a Christian perspective but that Americans are free to observe the day according to their religious viewpoints.
The National Day of Prayer was signed into law in 1952 by President Harry S. Truman. President Ronald Reagan amended the law in 1988 to state that the observances would be held the first Thursday in May.
"Of course, we prefer that they cancel it altogether and not do anything," said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, of any White House consideration of a National Day of Prayer observance.
But he speculated that if the White House does mark the day, it would probably include "lots of different types of religious leaders," akin to the interfaith feel of last year's Democratic National Convention.
Before the Bush years, task force leaders held more low-key events, including events at Lafayette Square across the street during the Clinton administration.
"There was no East Room event until George W.," Toon said.
If there is no White House event this year, it will be a disappointment, he said.
"We're not politically inclined either direction," he said. "Our passion is to pray for all of our nation's leaders and their families."
Staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.