Under the shadow of a court ruling that threatens its existence, the National Day of Prayer was celebrated in a downtown public square Thursday — perhaps officially for the last time. Like so many other religious things these days, the Day of Prayer lies in the hands of lawyers.
All of that went right over the head of Mya McGhee, age 6, who was bused to the park by her King's Kids Christian Academy. She wore a blue plaid skirt and a white blouse with a sticker that said, "I prayed."
Prayed about what, she was asked.
"I thanked God for waking me up today."
On April 15, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that a 58-year-old act of Congress that established the National Day of Prayer violates the First Amendment, which prohibits the government establishment of religion.
In her ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Crabb paid her respects to prayer — but not prayer under the auspices of a federal law.
"No one can doubt the important role that prayer plays in the spiritual life of a believer," Crabb wrote in her opinion. "... However, (that) does not mean the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan."
But Crabb ruled that observances could continue until appeals by the Justice Department are exhausted. President Barack Obama issued the usual presidential proclamation for the National Day of Prayer, as did Congress, Gov. Charlie Crist and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.
The ruling was hardly mentioned during prayer in Tampa's downtown Lykes Gaslight Park. But while that group prayed, atheists came out to the Tampa City Council meeting to repeat their pleas to end prayer at government meetings.
Atheists have been pressuring the council to stop its invocations for months. On Thursday, more than a dozen turned out, wearing blue shirts adorned with heavenly clouds and the words: "Don't believe in God? You're not alone."
While the atheists occupied the council chambers, a small, mostly Christian crowd gathered under the shade of oak trees. Many were students bused in from Christian schools. They wore white shirts, dark slacks and skirts and brought their choirs and electric guitars. Most said they came with something special to pray for.
Robert Sabine, a freshman at Bayshore Christian School, wanted to pray for a classmate whose parents are divorcing. The Rev. David Rivera, pastor of the Pentecostal Church of God, came by to pray for Latin immigrants in his congregation. "I'm praying for understanding of immigration reform," he said.
Rivera said celebrating the National Day of Prayer wasn't about pushing religion. "I'm just pushing prayer."
At certain times, people just can't help but pray, said Tampa's official "Jesus guy," who meandered the edge of the crowd, with Bible, beard, bare feet and a white linen tunic.
"Jesus guy" is James Joseph, a 49-year-old traveling preacher who can be spotted all over Tampa.
"Even people who don't normally pray will almost instinctively pray in tough situations," Jesus guy said. "You know what they say about no atheists in foxholes.
"Lose your job, and you'll pray."
Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. John Barry can be reached at 727-892-2258.