President Obama signed his annual proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as the National Day of Prayer, a traditional that began under President Truman in 1952. However, some atheists and secular groups are planning protests and are asking the annual day be discontinued.
"On this National Day of Prayer, we give thanks for our democracy that respects the beliefs and protects the religious freedom of all people to pray, worship, or abstain according to the dictates of their conscience," reads the president's proclamation. "Let us pray for all the citizens of our great Nation, particularly those who are sick, mourning, or without hope, and ask God for the sustenance to meet the challenges we face as a Nation."
But the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, takes issue with the president's words and says the annual day has been "hijacked" by conservatives to promote a "far-right religious-political agenda."
"The National Day of Prayer is just another attempt by the Religious Right to mix government with religion," says Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Americans don't need to be told when or whether to pray, so this is yet another excuse for those who oppose church-state separation to go on the attack."
This year's 61st National Day of Prayer honorary chairman is prominent California minister David Jeremiah and the group's chairperson is Shirley Dobson, the wife of Focus on the Family founder Dr. James Dobson.
Dobson is also concerned about attacks from groups such as Lynn's on the National Day of Prayer, which she says is open to all.
"Even though most national, state, and local leaders have again acknowledged a National Day of Prayer, there is still a disturbing trend of trying to remove God and prayer from all aspects of American public life," Dobson said in a written statement.
"President Ronald Reagan once said, 'If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under.' Whether it involves the Ten Commandments or our Pledge of Allegiance, there is a very small number of people leading this movement to expel the Creator of the universe from society altogether."
Political and religious groups aren't the only ones drawn into the debate. In April 2010, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb found the National Day of Prayer to be in violation of the First Amendment, which prohibits laws regarding an establishment of religion. "Its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer," wrote Crabb.
However, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling in April 2011, saying that the Freedom From Religion Foundation lacked standing to bring the suit.
In addition to the tens of thousands of events throughout the country celebrating the National Day of Prayer, a handful of atheists are holding protests. A group in Savannah, Ga., is gathering on the courthouse steps to request that the government no longer sanction the event.
Still, Dobson and other evangelicals feel the day benefits all Americans.
"It's imperative that we take advantage of this government-proclaimed day of observance by expressing our faith through prayer in the public square. By doing so, we can help to ensure that subsequent generations will enjoy the same liberty."