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For a house of prayer, it's casual wear

The Rev. David Moyer still remembers the gasp as the beautiful young bride came up the aisle.

“What was that about?” he wondered.

So Moyer, the conservative rector of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Rosemont, went ahead with the nuptials – quite unaware of how backless the bride's dress really was.

“It wasn't until I blessed them and they turned around that I looked down,” he recalled with a laugh, “and saw her butt crack.”

Moyer said nothing at the time. But after years of watching wedding gowns grow skimpier and more revealing, he's had enough.

“I never thought I'd see the day,” he said, “but I now tell couples in premarital counseling that their wedding clothes must be dignified and lovely.”

Glance around churches any weekend and it's plain that “proper dress” is just a quaint memory for some people – and an alien concept to others.

Gone from most congregations are men in jackets and ties and shiny shoes. Women in heels and dresses – never mind hats – can be a rarity, too. It's a trend some clergy lament and others accept.

“Sunday has lost its sense of being a special day, and I think the clothes went with it,” said the Rev. Joseph McLoone, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel parish in Chester, Pa. “People dress a lot more casually than they used to, but I'm just happy they're in church.”

Notions of proper church dress can also vary according to income, age and ethnicity, said McLoone, many of whose parishioners live modestly. For a struggling immigrant family, he said, “it might mean their clothes are clean.”

Some synagogues, too, have noticed the change. Dress standards are “a hard thing to balance,” said Rabbi Neil Cooper of Congregation Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, Pa. “We all want our places to be inclusive, and we don't want people to feel as if they are not welcome because they're not dressed up.

“On the other hand, we're standing before God, and the way we dress is a reflection of the seriousness with which we take an encounter.” Most religious leaders say they don't impose a dress code for fear of discouraging attendance. “We just want people to feel welcome,” said Richard Stanislaw, president of the Jersey Shore's interfaith Ocean City Tabernacle.

He explained that he was wearing a jacket and tie before a 10:30 service because he had to be on the dais that morning. “But if I was in the pew, I'd just be wearing a sports shirt.”

Many people entering the tabernacle were older and neatly dressed, but it was strictly beachwear for the vacationing Schlachta family, who arrived on bicycles.

A professional magician, Eric Schlachta seemed delighted by his latest trick: getting his four children – all younger than 8 – to church on time, even if it meant cutoffs and flip-flops. Sydney Schlachta, 6, smiled as she showed off the pink bathing suit under her sleeveless shift dress.

“The important thing is we're here,” said Dad.

One of the few men wearing a suit at the tabernacle was the Rev. Tony Campolo, the guest preacher for the 10:30 service.

“I always wear a suit to church no matter if I'm preaching or I'm listening,” said Campolo. “We're in the presence of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords.”

Campolo recalled the time a group of visiting teenagers from Canada showed up in T-shirts and jeans at the predominantly African American Mount Carmel Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, where he worships.

“Well, the ushers turned them away,” Campolo continued, “and the kids got all mad. They said, ‘What, you don't let poor people in your church?' And the ushers said, ‘Oh, we let poor people in. But you're not poor. We'll let you in when you come dressed with respect.'”

The Rev. Joseph Ganiel, pastor of St. James parish in Ventnor, N.J., doesn't turn the underdressed away. But he has had it, he said, with tank tops and flip-flops and short shorts and naked navels. Nowadays he posts a summer dress code in the parish bulletin.

But a Philadelphia woman in a jogging suit, escorting two teenage boys in shorts and T-shirts into St. Frances Cabrini Church in Ocean City, N.J., scoffed at the idea of a dress code for church.

“I think God cares about what's in your heart,” she said, “not what you wear.”