WASHINGTON- Threatened by court rulings and opponents who say it threatens the nation's boundary between church and state, organizers of the National Day of Prayer successfully held its 60th observance on Thursday.
The three-hour-long main service, held inside the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill, featured author and disability advocate Joni Eareckson Tada, who served as honorary chairwoman of this year's event. Similar Prayer Day activities took place across the country at statehouses, city halls, and churches.
At the Washington gathering, Shirley Dobson, one of the event's organizers, said only two states (Rhode Island and California) had yet to issue their own National Day of Prayer proclamation. With "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" as the theme, the day was designed to encourage thousands to pray that the nation would turn to the Lord. On the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, a group did so as they continued a weeklong vigil, while others nearby held, for the 22nd time, a 90-hour continuous Bible reading.
But this year's prayer gatherings took on special significance after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month unanimously overturned a judge's ruling that the National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional.
"God heard and answered our prayer, and here we are today," said James Dobson.
While Congress established the Day of Prayer in 1952, the law states that the president must proclaim it every year. As he did last year, President Barack Obama did that in advance. But U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb's April 2010 ruling that the National Day of Prayer "goes beyond mere acknowledgment of religion" held the observance in jeopardy until the appellate panel overturned it.
Rep. Allen West, a freshman Republican from Florida, spoke at the Capitol event and implored that the nation "never forgets that before you stand strong you must kneel in prayer."
Those at the prayer gathering came with much to praise: A day earlier the U.S. House voted to prohibit federal funding of abortion. But attendees also had much to pray about because the bill likely will be defeated in the Senate.
The National Day of Prayer has also faced challenges from outside the courtroom. For example, Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., gave a House floor speech on Thursday recognizing a "National Day of Reason."
"Reason and rational thinking have made our country great," said Stark, endorsing an event that is being touted by atheists as an alternative to the Day of Prayer. "The Constitution also contains a strong separation of church and state, making it clear that government should continue to be built on reason."
Paul Newby, a justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court, said he is still worried about legal challenges to the Day of Prayer. The 7th Circuit's ruling in favor of the day is expected to be appealed to a higher court.