Obama to speak at National Prayer Breakfast amid a litany of criticism

President Barack Obama will attend the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday amid a litany of criticism from groups opposed to its organizer.

Every president since Dwight Eisenhower has attended the breakfast, but the conservative Christian group that organizes the breakfast, called The Family or The Fellowship, has come under increased scrutiny from gay-rights groups.

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The organizations say some of its members back legislation in Uganda that would criminalize homosexuality, with the death penalty possible in some cases.

A number of liberal religious leaders have organized an “American Prayer Hour” on Thursday to protest the National Prayer Breakfast.

An organizer of the “Prayer Hour,” Harry Knox of the pro-gay-rights Human Rights Campaign, said Tuesday that he hopes Obama uses his address at the breakfast to condemn the Uganda law.

"We're not surprised that the president wanted to continue the trend of every president speaking at the prayer breakfast," Knox said in an interview with the website BeliefNet. "But we thought it was important that he recognize that his attendance has great power -- that the event can be redeemed, frankly."

The event, which a number of lawmakers from both parties and other public officials attend each year, is operated by The Family or The Fellowship, which in turn counts senators and congressman as members. 

Some members of The Family have recently been accused of encouraging the anti-gay bill, which would make could allow gays and lesbians to be punished with the death penalty and would crack down on gay rights advocates.

The group is also said to have ties with David Bahati, the Ugandan legislator pushing the bill. Reports have said Bahati, who organizes the National Prayer Breakfast in his own country, is a member of The Family, whose followers are traditionally secretive about membership. Bahati, who was scheduled to attend Thursday's breakfast, will no longer travel to Washington to be there.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has also condemned the National Prayer Breakfast due to The Family’s alleged ties to the Ugandan law.

“We’re no longer shrugging over the National Prayer Breakfast,” director Rev. Barry Lynn said at a press conference this week. “Rather, we’re taking a closer look at the group behind it and the alarming agenda that it brings and the consequences it spawns in Uganda and around the world. We deplore what we see, and people of good will should never be afraid to say it loudly.”

A spokesman for The Family has said it has never supported the Ugandan anti-gay law, according to media reports.

But gay-rights groups aren’t the only ones that disapprove of Obama’s appearance at the dinner.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a government watchdog group, has asked Obama and lawmakers not to attend the breakfast because they say The Family poses ethical concerns.

The group wrote a letter to Obama as well as Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress asking them to skip the event.

"The National Prayer Breakfast uses the suggested imprimatur of the elected leaders who attend to give the Fellowship greater credibility and facilitate its networking and fundraising," CREW director Melanie Sloan said in a statement this week. "The president and members of Congress should not legitimatize this cult-like group -- the head of which has praised the organizing abilities of Hitler and Bin Laden -- by attending the breakfast."

CREW took aim at Family chief Doug Coe, who they say operates his organization under a “veil of secrecy,” concealing its funding sources and political aims.

The letter also criticized the group for hosting lawmakers who have experienced ethical problems in its C Street House on Capitol Hill, such as Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) .

Ensign last year admitted to having an extramarital affair and is accused of illegally setting up the woman’s husband, who happens to be Ensign’s ex-chief of staff, with a lobbying job.

Tiahrt is under investigation by a House ethics panel for his ties to a lobbying firm.

CREW has also asked C-SPAN to refrain from broadcasting the breakfast or at least identify The Family as the host and “provide proper context of the event.

“The Fellowship has been cultivating an unorthodox brand of Christianity amongst the political, military, and economic elite of America and other countries for over 50 years,” the group said in a release. 

C-SPAN confirmed Wednesday that the event will be broadcast live on C-SPAN2.

Another political lightening rod will also be in attendance at the breakfast: former University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.

The Heisman Trophy winner starred in an anti-abortion television ad to air during the Super Bowl, a spot that critics have deemed inappropriate for the game watched nearly 100 million but supporters say is in bounds.

Nonetheless, Obama will attend the breakfast as every president has since 1953. Many presidents have given speeches to share their thoughts on religion and how their administrations address faith.

Last year, the president introduced new faith-based initiatives and partnerships his administration was set to launch and pushed a message of unity among people of different faiths. 

"The particular faith that motivates each of us can promote a greater good for all of us," Obama said at the breakfast last February. "Instead of driving us apart, our varied beliefs can bring us together to feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted; to make peace where there is strife and rebuild what has broken; to lift up those who have fallen on hard times."