"Because Washington is a place for networking, people who do take part in these activities should make it clear to their subordinates that it's not an expectation in any way," she said.

Gaylor said that there is a "coercive" element to formal and informal prayer groups.

"It's like telling staff people, `If you want to get in good with your boss, you have to be praying,'" she said.

Congressmen and staff members should make it clear that neither promotions nor penalties are linked with prayer participation -- and make sure their actions reflect their words, Rogers said.

Robert Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said informal prayer groups are preferable to religious expression funded by state dollars -- for instance, the House and Senate chaplains.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is part of both formal and informal prayer groups in Congress. He attends weekly Senate prayer breakfasts, and also prays in private.

"I regularly take time to pray by myself and with others to offer thanks and seek guidance," Grassley said. "As a Christian, I believe that God wants us to talk to him about anything in our life."

Wamp said he notices more people than ever praying on the Hill, especially in the wake of Sept. 11.

"We hit our knees as a country on Sept. 11, and I hope we stayed there," he said. "I believe we have. I think prayer influences a number of congresspeople's daily lives."

Jennifer Smith, spokeswoman for the Center for Christian Statesmanship founded by conservative pastor D. James Kennedy of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said prayer transcends politics.

"Capitol Hill can be a really stressful arena to work in and ... it's important that believers know they aren't out there fighting the battle alone," she said. "The prayer that happens on Capitol Hill is a really important part of (congressmen's) days."

Tiahrt said many members of Congress, who keep hectic schedules, find structure and repose in prayer.

"(Congress) is such a different lifestyle," he said. "I pray for my family quite a bit. Family is eternal, and this job only lasts two years."

© 2003 Religion News Service.