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Interfaith, Christian Groups Holding Separate Prayer Rallies in Oklahoma

Thursday’s National Day of Prayer in Oklahoma will feature competing public prayer services at the state Capitol: one backed by conservative evangelicals and another that is inclusive.

National Day of Prayer services in Oklahoma City for more than a decade have excluded people of minority faiths, says an organization called STOP (Stop Theocracy in Oklahoma Policy), which protested last year’s rally.

This year STOP member Mike Fuller applied for and received a permit to use the Capitol’s south steps for “a rally to celebrate diversity of faith and conscience” on May 6, driving a separate observance sponsored by the National Day of Prayer Task Force to the second-floor rotunda.

Mainstream Baptists of Oklahoma and the state’s chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State joined STOP to organize an Interfaith Day of Prayer and Reflection at noon Thursday. The Judeo-Christian service, organized by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, begins inside the Capitol at 11:40.

People of minority faiths have in the past been excluded from full participation in the National Day of Prayer services in Oklahoma and elsewhere, according to the Mainstream Baptists of Oklahoma Web site. The annual program is planned by a close-knit group, which Mainstream Baptists says has largely excluded not only non-Christians but also mainline clergy.

Contrary to planners associated with the National Day of Prayer Task Force, which sponsors only events they say are consistent with their beliefs, “Baptists have traditionally been champions of religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all persons,” said Bruce Prescott, who serves both as executive director of Mainstream Baptists of Oklahoma and president of the state’s Americans United chapter.

Prescott said the interfaith service will include about 15 speakers from various groups, including the Interfaith Alliance, Oklahoma Conference of Churches and Cooperating Baptist Fellowship of Oklahoma, according to the Oklahoman newspaper. Other groups representing Muslims, Unitarians, Jews, Buddhists, Native Americans, pagans and secular humanists are also involved.

Prescott said members of STOP asked him last year to participate in their protest of the National Day of Prayer observance. He declined, and offered instead to help organize an interfaith event that “would celebrate religious liberty and the diversity of faith and conscience that we all enjoy as Americans.”

“We believe that respect for the beliefs and convictions of others is foundational to democracy, good government and faithful Christian witness,” Prescott said.

Mike Estes of the Oklahoma Family Policy Council was invited to be on the interfaith prayer service program, but he declined in a letter citing concerns about “the secular-fundamentalist philosophies and political objectives held” by some of the groups in the coalition planning the event.

The National Day of Prayer Task Force, led by Shirley Dobson, wife of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, says its prayer events are open to everyone, but they do have a “Judeo-Christian” character. Requirements for various levels of coordinators include “a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ.”

The National Day of Prayer Task Force denies its rallies are political events. “The National Day of Prayer, as designated by our government, belongs to all Americans,” says the group’s Web site. “It is not sponsored or owned by any one group. Every American can observe the NDP in his or her own way.”

But Americans United for Separation of Church and State disagrees.

“These events are carefully managed to give the general public the impression that the government has endorsed the Religious Right’s religious and political viewpoint,” AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said in a statement. “It’s exactly opposite of what our nation’s Founders intended.”

Congress established an annual National Day of Prayer in 1952. President Reagan amended the law in 1998, designating the first Thursday in May for its observance.

President Bush signed a proclamation Friday declaring Thursday, May 6, as this year’s National Day of Prayer, encouraging “Americans of every faith to give thanks for God’s many blessings and to pray for each other and our nation.”

“I ask the citizens of our nation to give thanks, each according to his or her own faith, for the freedoms and blessings we have received and for God’s continued guidance and protection,” the president said. “I also urge all Americans to join in observing this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies and activities.”

Anthony Jordan, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, criticized Baptist involvement in the interfaith prayer rally in an April 29 column in the Baptist Messenger. Jordan said National Day of Prayer opponents “seek to eliminate every remnant of faith and belief in God from the government” in the name of separation of church and state.

“Evangelicals do not have to join with others who pray to ‘whomever,’ and that does not make our prayers at the Capitol a crime against the separation of church and state,” he said.

Jordan said the small groups behind the interfaith prayer service “do not represent the overwhelming majority of Oklahoma Baptists,” and if his refusal to join with the groups for prayer “makes me a fundamentalist, then spell it with a capital ‘F.'”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.