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US Evangelicals Defiant Over Court Challenge to National Day of Prayer

Reverand Franklin Graham in Washington for National Day of Prayer, 6 May 2010

Evangelical Christians gathered in legislative halls in the nation's capital and at state capitals across the country Thursday to observe a National Day of Prayer. Their leaders vowed to fight to preserve the annual tradition despite a recent court ruling saying that it violates the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state in America. .

The main National Day of Prayer observance was held under the glittering chandeliers of a Congressional caucus room.

For three hours, Christian musicians sang and played spiritual songs.

And preachers led several hundred invited guests in prayer. But the speaker who most inspired the audience was the Reverend Franklin Graham. He is the son of Billy Graham, who was a popular preacher and spiritual advisor to a number of past presidents. He began by addressing the few non-christians in the audience.

"And I know we have people here today of other faiths. And I certainly want to say that I love you. But please allow me to speak today as a minister of the gospel. And I don't want to be offensive to anyone," he said.

Graham had been offensive to people of other faiths outside the room. He has said that Islam is an evil religion. After a protest, the Army canceled an invitation to him to participate in a prayer day event at the Pentagon. Graham did pray outside the Defense Departments' headquarters before coming to the congressional building.

In his sermon, Graham was critical of American culture and politics - from its idolization of pop stars to the lawfulness of abortion. And he called for repentence. "He so loved America that he gave his only begotten son that if America would repent if America would turn and by faith receive Christ, god would forgive our sins," he said.

Last month, a judge in the U.S. state of Wisconsin ruled that the National Day of Prayer violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It prohibits Congress from making any "law respecting the establishment of a religion."

In 1952, U.S. Congress passed a law establishing the National Day of Prayer. But the Wisconsin ruling did not apply to this year's observance.

After the prayers and songs, John Bornschein of the National Day of Prayer task force, a grouping of influential religious leaders, said the observance is not about establishing any faith. "God is not a church. God is not a religion. God is welcome and recognized by all. This is a nation that is under God. In God we trust is our national motto," he said.

He said the event is in keeping with the Christian heritage of America's founding fathers.

Ruth Mizell, 88, has been attending the observances for years. Her late husband was a Congressman from North Carolina. She said the National Day of Prayer helps make America a great nation. "Prayer is what keeps us safe. And God is what directs us. And if we lose that direction we're going to be like the Third World nations," she said.

The organization that brought the court suit, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, ran a full page ad against the day of prayer in the New York Times. It argues that America was founded by refugees fleeing religious tyranny in Europe.

But the National Day of Prayer task force says the judge's ruling will only energize those who want the National Day of Prayer to continue.