Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of local government officials to begin meetings with a prayer. The decision recognizes prayer is woven into the fabric of the United States of America. The ruling is not an endorsement of Christianity. Instead, it refutes that government or citizens have power to supervise and censor religious speech. That’s a victory for Americans of all faiths.
It’s inarguable that prayer was an important part of our nation’s founding. The Declaration of Independence states, “All Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” The last line of this document references “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence” in declaring our nation free and independent.
After victory in the War of Independence, the Constitution of the United States was drafted and ratified to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” From the beginning, each session of Congress has opened with a legislative prayer. The Congress that passed the First Amendment as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791 was no exception.
The First Amendment begins with, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in Lynch v. Donnelly that the first clause, known as the Establishment Clause, “prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community.” The Court held that legislative prayer does not fall within that realm.
Legislative prayer, even that which invokes Christ, has long endured as part of American heritage and tradition since the founding. It’s as fundamental as references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance and on our currency. There is a prayer at each presidential inauguration. Moreover, each session of the U.S. Supreme Court begins with a recitation of “God save the United States and this honorable Court.”
With the ruling upholding legislative prayer, the court recognized that the traditional practices of the nation, which have withstood the test of time and political change, cannot possibly be unconstitutional. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, “The prayer opportunity in this case must be evaluated against the backdrop of historical practice.” The traditional intersection of religion and government is not prohibited by the rule of law.
Legislative prayer is not required to be nondenominational and void of the beliefs of any particular religion. On the contrary, such a stipulation would grant government officials the power to infringe upon religious speech. Furthermore, the court ruled government cannot make quasi-theological pronouncements about what shall be considered endorsement of religion. Such proclamations would truly involve government intrusion into religion.
Despite logic and legalities, many liberals complain the court is giving Christianity a special role. They insist the decision is hostile to religious minorities and that government must be secular in every regard. Such an opinion ignores the fact that our nation was founded upon Judeo-Christian values and asserts the secular minority can suppress the free speech of the religious majority.
The Constitution does not stifle authentic religious belief and expression. It does the opposite, by protecting it. The intent of the founders was not to ban religion from public discourse. As long as prayers at public meetings are not proselytizing or denigrating to nonbelievers, such tradition is not precluded by the rule of law. A recent national survey by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that 73 percent of Americans support such prayers at public government meetings.
“The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers,” Justice Kennedy said. Legislative prayers lend credence to important occasions and reflect the heritage of the United States.
Americans of all faiths are free to pray as conscience dictates. Since the first Continental Congress, legislative prayers have been addressed to people of many faiths who are united by tolerance and devotion. True liberty depends on the traditional intersection of government and religion. The Declaration recognized “all Men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator.” That’s why our government only derives power from the consent of our people.