Gay Controversies Tempered as National Prayer Breakfast Returns

President Obama will offer his first major remarks to America’s faith community since he announced his support for gay marriage last May

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Official White House Photo / Pete Souza

President Barack Obama speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Feb. 2, 2012

Religious and community leaders will gather Thursday in Washington for the 61st annual National Prayer Breakfast, where President Obama will offer his first major remarks to America’s faith community since he announced his support for gay marriage last May. Obama usually shies away from policy at the breakfast — in his first four, he only briefly mentioned health care, immigration and the fiscal crisis. His only mention of sexuality was a quick aside in 2010. But many of the 3,000-plus guests will be wondering if his new position finds its way into his remarks.

The National Prayer Breakfast’s organizer, the Fellowship Foundation, has historically held conservative evangelical positions and was linked to legislation in Uganda that would make being gay a capital offense. The breakfast is not a White House–sponsored event — the National Prayer Breakfast leadership and congressional offices handle the invitations, and the President just goes to speak. But this relationship has drawn criticism from marriage-equality advocates in recent years. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) sent letters to congressional leaders urging them to boycott the breakfast in 2010, and that same year, gay-rights activists organized competing prayer events in 17 cities. Last year, Occupy Faith held a countering People’s Prayer Breakfast with gay-rights groups.

The controversy over the breakfast organizers is a perennial one, but this year protests are scarce. Get Equal, a co-sponsor of last year’s People’s breakfast, expects to release a statement and focus instead on countering anti-gay legislation in Uganda. CREW did not send letters, but executive director Melanie Sloan told TIME that they still urge lawmakers to boycott the event. Overall, the urgency appears mitigated.

That does not mean all controversy has been eliminated. Earlier this year, Obama’s Inaugural organizers invited Pastor Louie Giglio to deliver the 2013 benediction, but after a two-decade-old comment condemning homosexuality of his resurfaced, Giglio was replaced with an Episcopal priest who supports gay rights. It was a pointed shift from four years ago, when the newly minted Obama Administration invited evangelical dynamo Rick Warren to deliver the Inaugural invocation even though it was widely known that Warren opposed gay marriage. The shift is particularly notable given that at last year’s Prayer Breakfast, the President even mentioned Giglio’s ministry by name when he called attention to the fight against sex trafficking.

Neither Giglio nor Warren is scheduled to attend the event, but hundreds of other prominent evangelicals are. Other topics certainly could lead the President’s list — guns, immigration and climate change, to predict a few. And perhaps Obama will not mention gay rights in an attempt to mend bridges the Inaugural Giglio snafu damaged. But if Obama does discuss marriage equality, it will not go unnoticed.