WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said yesterday that he prays lawmakers can restore a "spirit of civility" to the nation's capital.
Speaking at the annual National Prayer breakfast, Obama said divisions in Washington are nothing new, but "there is a sense that something is different now, that something is broken, that those of us in Washington aren't serving people as well as we should."
Obama said America's leaders are quick to unite in times of crisis, such as last month's devastating earthquake in Haiti.
But when it comes to long-term problems, he said, lawmakers can become absorbed by ideology and power contests.
He urged leaders to be empowered by faith to bridge divisions. "You can question my policies without questioning my faith. Or, for that matter, my citizenship," Obama said, referring to critics who have questioned whether he was born in the United States.
Obama also said his Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships had "turned the faith-based initiative around" from its previous incarnation under the Bush administration to "find common ground among people of all beliefs."
The Americans United for Separation of Church and State and 25 other organizations sent a letter to Obama protesting these remarks and saying Obama has failed to protect the boundary between church and state.
"In all significant ways, the Obama faith-based initiative right now is the same as the Bush faith-based initiative," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the group's executive director, said in a statement.
Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Florida Gators quarterback Tim Tebow also participated in the breakfast, which has been held in Washington for more than 50 years. Every president since Dwight Eisenhower has participated.
This year's event also drew controversy when an ethics group asked the president to boycott the breakfast over objections to the sponsor, The Fellowship Foundation.
In a letter to Obama and congressional leaders, the watchdog group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington said The Fellowship Foundation has "been cultivating an unorthodox brand of Christianity amongst the political, military and economic elite of America." The group says the foundation is also linked to efforts to pass strict anti-gay laws in Uganda.