updated 4/12/2009 1:19:40 PM ET 2009-04-12T17:19:40

President Barack Obama and his family took communion Sunday as they celebrated Easter at St. John's Church in their first public worship service since the inauguration.

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As congregants went to the altar for communion, several stopped at the president's pew and wished Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters a happy Easter.

Located across from the White House, St. John's is popular with presidents. President George W. Bush often attended services, and church history contends that every president since James Madison, the nation's fourth chief executive, has visited.

Parishioners passed through metal detectors on 16th Street before the Episcopal service. People gathered across the street in Lafayette Park and at the driveway of the Hay-Adams Hotel in anticipation of seeing the president.

Traditional Easter selections
The service began with organ, brass and percussion fanfare. Obama and other worshippers heard readings from the book of Exodus, the gospel of Mark and other traditional Easter selections from the Bible.

Among prayers offered during the service were those for Obama and others in public life: "Guide and bless us in our work and play, and shape the patterns of our political and economic life. We pray for Barack, our president, the leaders of Congress and the Supreme Court, and all who are in authority; for Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and the Middle East, that all people may be fulfilled through the bounty of your creation." The congregation responded: "We are made in your image, O God. Guide us in your grace."

In his sermon, the Rev. Luis Leon welcomed believers and nonbelievers alike and called Easter an event based on faith, not logic.

"I can't explain Easter to anyone. It just can't be done. It's like a professor trying to explain one of e.e. cummings' poems," he said. He added: "It takes time to be a believer. ... Faith cannot be forced and faith cannot be coerced."

Leon made no mention of the Obamas in his sermon. Instead, he talked about the North Carolina Tar Heels, the college team that recently won the NCAA men's basketball championship, and the start of the baseball season.

"I'm a fairly charitable person," the pastor said, "but I hate the Yankees."

There was no indication from White House officials that Obama was seeking membership at St. John's. The president and his family attended a private service there on Inauguration Day, a tradition for those about to become president.

Political and social significance
Where a president worships — and whether he goes to church at all — tends to draw political as well as social significance. For Obama, his place of worship has been of keen interest because of the role his religion played in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Obama attended a Christian church in Chicago until controversial remarks about race and other issues by its pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, led Obama to leave the church. Throughout the campaign Obama dismissed rumors that he was not a Christian but actually a Muslim.

St. John's is convenient as well as traditional for presidents seeking church services. A pew nine rows back from the altar carries a small brass plaque designating it as "The President's Pew."

Both the Secret Service and parish officials are used to the demands for security when a president visits.

The first service at St. John's took place in October 1816. Abraham Lincoln walked to St. John's during the Civil War in search of a private moment to pray. The day after John F. Kennedy's assassination, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, prayed there.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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