Faithful observe National Day of Prayer

Groups gather despite federal judge's ruling that the day is unconstitutional

May 06, 2010|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Pastor Marcus Johnson of New Harvest Ministries stood outside Baltimore's City Hall on Thursday and asked a crowd of about 100 to pray out loud and unrestrained.

A federal judge's ruling last month that the law that directs the president to proclaim a National Day of Prayer is unconstitutional did not diminish the enthusiasm of the faithful, who held Bibles, waved American flags and raised their hands to the heavens.

"I have been called to pray," Johnson said. "If I am standing in line at the supermarket or the bank, I can pray. Prayer is who I am and what I do. It is my Christian duty. It is not just for Sundays within the walls of a church."

Similar gatherings were scheduled at government buildings around the nation, including those on the grounds of the Virginia state Capitol and on the lawn outside City Hall in Coral Springs, Fla. In Annapolis, an evening prayer service with the theme "becoming better stewards" was set for Lawyer's Mall.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of Wisconsin ruled last month the day violates the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits Congress from creating a "law respecting an establishment of religion."

She said the government should not use its influence to decide when people should pray. But her ruling does not cancel the National Day of Prayer until appeals are exhausted, she wrote.

"We are not convinced the judge made a good call and her ruling helped us spread the word," said Carol Pinto, Baltimore area coordinator for the day's numerous events, which included a prayer walk along North Charles Street. "We could never have bought that much attention to ourselves. It is really increasing participation."

The National Day of Prayer was created by congressional resolution in 1952 and signed into law by President Harry Truman. It has no government funding, and organizing is left to private groups. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., challenged the government establishing such an observance.

"This day is still legal and even if it is declared not legal, we will probably still observe it," said Lee Merrell, organizer of Harford County's observance at the Court House on Bel Air's Main Street. "There is a power in prayer, especially when it is going on all over the nation for the nation."

In Baltimore, prayer leaders offered petitions for the government, the military, education, families and churches. The crowd responded with loud "Amens."

Johnson pointed to City Hall and unleashed a litany of petitions.

"We need God back in our community, our city and our family," Johnson said. "I am not ashamed to lift up my hands and praise God."

Many in the crowd wore T-shirts printed with "Pray without Ceasing" or "It's Time to Pray." They began the hourlong event with the Pledge of Allegiance and joined in a stirring rendition of "America the Beautiful." Sabrina Sutton, an assistant to Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, read the mayor's proclamation, which urged citizens to join in the many services throughout the city.

"For many Americans, prayer is as important today as it was at the nation's beginning," the proclamation read.

President Barack Obama, whose administration is appealing Crabb's ruling, issued a proclamation urging Americans to "pray, or otherwise give thanks" for the nation's freedom and blessings.

A USA Today/Gallup Poll on May 1 and 2 showed 57 percent of Americans favor setting aside a day for prayer. The most ardent supporters included Republicans (76 percent), women 50 and older (71 percent) and Midwesterners (71 percent).

"These gatherings bring communities together to pray for common needs," said Maebelle Hickman, a city resident who said she has observed the National Day of Prayer most of her life. "Prayer is definitely needful."

Wires services contributed to this article.

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