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Debate changer

Religion | Congressional Prayer Caucus founder Randy Forbes is trying to build a nationwide network of legislators to fight back against attacks on religion in public life

Issue: "How Mark Souder fell," June 19, 2010

On April 21, a drenching rain forced 20 lawmakers to scuttle an outdoor event and cram into a small room in the Cannon House Office Building. But the rain did little to dampen their anger over U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb's recent ruling that the long-held National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.

The members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus competed to come up with the most scathing adjective to describe the judge's decision:

"Disgusting. . ." "Disrespectful. . ." "An abomination. . ."

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The tongue-lashing continued:

"Misguided. . ." "Nefarious. . . " "Absurd."

Their anger did not respect party lines. Republicans and Democrats alike made verbal punches for more than an hour.

Just one day after this gathering, the Obama administration announced it would challenge the court ruling. When I later asked Rep. Randy Forbes, the Virginia Republican who founded the caucus, if the "prayer meeting" influenced the Obama administration's quick opposition, Forbes did something he didn't do at the press conference: He smiled.

After staying largely under the radar since its 2005 creation, the Congressional Prayer Caucus is cranking up its profile in the face of heightened threats against what its members call the nation's legacy of faith. Call it Prayer Caucus 2.0.

Forbes thinks the time is right for a united front among Christian lawmakers. "Americans, whether they have committed to their faiths or not, do not want secularization crammed down their throats," Forbes told me. "And that is what we are standing against."

Congress has dozens of club-like caucuses. They range from those based on race or ethnicity (the Black Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus) to forums that fight diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's. Issues like adoption have caucuses as do even hobbies like bike riding and bourbon drinking. The Congressional Songwriters Caucus is known to host a guitar-picking session from time to time on Capitol Hill.

Many caucuses serve largely as excuses for people with similar interests to have parties. But the 64 prayer caucus members (five are Democrats) say they want to do more than pray.

I met with Forbes recently in his Washington office, which is dominated by a wall-sized, framed copy of the Declaration of Independence. Smaller framed portraits of its 56 signers surround the replica.

Forbes says anti-faith groups have raised vast sums of money to pick fights with religious organizations. "For decades now people of faith have said, 'We are just working our own ministries, and we are going to wait and play defense when they come after us.' Our strategy is different. We think we need to push back."

To do so Forbes set up the nonprofit Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation to raise both awareness and money. The foundation's website, which asks churches and individuals to sign up to pray for the nation on a "digital prayer wall," also offers $5,000 annual memberships to a club called the "300"-a reference to Gideon's army in Judges.

The money funds Forbes' signature strategy: franchising out the Congressional Prayer Caucus concept to state legislatures.

Mississippi became the first state to partner with the caucus. Mississippi's GOP Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant spearheaded the effort after Forbes visited his office in February. At that meeting Forbes enticed Bryant by telling him Mississippi could help spread the movement around the country. "I immediately accepted the challenge because Mississippi is one of the most religious states in the nation," Bryant told me.

On April 22, a bipartisan group of more than three dozen Mississippi lawmakers crowded onto steps inside the state Capitol for a press conference on prayer. To make it official the state legislature even put it to a vote, unanimously passing in both the House and Senate a resolution that formed the state caucus. Next year a Senate Republican will lead the weekly prayer group while a House Democrat will take over in 2012.

Legislatures in Virginia and Florida are at work on similar partnerships.

It is through these state groups that Forbes hopes to change the debate over religion in public life. Many of the nation's legislatures already have prayer groups, but Forbes wants to bring them together into a nationwide network that tracks threats against religion. The D.C. caucus would serve as the clearinghouse where policy makers formulate and coordinate strategies.

"Here is the new world, if you send 100 lobbyists against us, we send two and a half million emails raising this issue," said Forbes. "Do you really want to fight that battle?"

The caucus had humble beginnings. Sensing an "enormous pincer movement" against faith groups, Forbes in 2005 decided to start praying in U.S. Capitol Room 219 located just across from the House chamber. He selected the time right after each week's first vote, usually on Monday nights or Tuesday mornings.

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