WASHINGTON -- President Bush marked the National Day of Prayer at the White House on Thursday (May 1), noting Americans' equality across their diverse faiths even as critics charged that the widespread prayer observances have been "hijacked" by evangelicals.
"On this day, we celebrate our freedoms, particularly the freedom to pray in public and the great diversity of faith found in America," Bush said in remarks to about 230 religious, political and military leaders in the East Room.
"I love being the president of a country where people feel free to worship as they see fit. And I remind our fellow citizens, if you choose to worship or not worship, and no matter how you worship, we're all equally American."
The National Day of Prayer was signed into law in 1952 by President Harry Truman. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan amended the law to state that observances would be held the first Thursday in May. Official nationwide observances are coordinated by a task force led by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.
But the group's work has been criticized recently by the online community Jews on First, which says events have been "hijacked" by evangelical Christians. Critics say organizers must affirm a statement of faith that declares the Bible is "the inerrant Word of the Living God."
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Some groups planned "alternate inclusive interfaith events," such as prayer gatherings and counter-demonstrations. The Council on American-Islamic Affairs and Americans United for Separation of Church and State joined in the campaign spearheaded by Jews on First.
A task force spokeswoman has responded by saying its events "reflect its Christian perspective on prayer," but all Americans are free to observe the day in a way that demonstrates their own religious viewpoints.
Shirley Dobson, in remarks at the White House, focused on the range of events organized by her group, including observances at more than 100 prisons; one at a memorial chapel in Shanksville, Pa., where United Flight 93 crashed in the 9/11 attacks; and pilots flying and praying over all 50 state capitols.
"This is the eighth year that our National Day of Prayer Task Force has had the honor of calling Americans to prayer from the White House," she said, thanking Bush for holding ceremonies there. "By making prayer a priority in your life, you have set a powerful example."
Other participants in the White House ceremony included Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders who recited prayers or read from Scriptures.
Conservative Christian leader Paul Weyrich, who co-founded the now-defunct Moral Majority with the late Jerry Falwell, welcomed Bush's remarks.
"I personally am pleased that we have a president that values prayer," he said. "I fear the day when we have a president who doesn't. I think, whether you agree with his policies or not, clearly, he has relied upon guidance from above and I commend him for that."
Natioal Catholic Reporter