Published Wednesday, February 10, 2010 in Cumberland Times-News.
“Throughout the years, the United States Senate has honored the historic separation of Church and State, but not the separation of God and State”: From the web site of Barry C. Black, U.S. Senate Chaplain.
“The first Senate, meeting in New York City on April 25, 1789, elected the Right Reverend Samuel Provost, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, as its first Chaplain.” Since then, “all sessions of the Senate have been opened with prayer, strongly affirming the Senate's faith in God as Sovereign Lord of our Nation.”
Intending to undo our country’s unbroken grounding in God, 255 atheists, humanists, secularists, skeptics and freethinkers, along with thousands from 19 national and local organizations, represented by Michael Newdow, renewed their fight on Dec. 15, 2009 to remove prayer from public life.
In at least nine suits filed since 2002, Newdow leads the charge to remove “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance; strike “in God we trust” from American currency and as the national motto; stop invocations at Presidential inaugurations; eliminate “so help me God” from the Presidential swearing-in; and wipe “God save the United States and this honorable court” from court session openings.
In its amicus brief filed in Newdow’s appeal (the D.C. Circuit dismissed the case), American Center for Law and Justice attorney James M. Henderson writes that Newdow’s “targeting of religious expression at Presidential inaugurations is particularly meritless given the controlling decision” in Marsh v. Chambers (July 5, 1983).
Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers sued to prove that prayer offered by a state-supported chaplain at the legislature’s opening violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court held that prayer in the legislature, and state-hired chaplains, are constitutional, given the “unique history” of the United States.
“The practice of opening sessions of Congress with prayer has continued without interruption…since the First Congress drafted the First Amendment, and a similar practice has been followed…in Nebraska and many other states,” writes then-Chief Justice Warren Burger in the court opinion.
“To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not…a violation of the Establishment Clause; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”
As Justice Burger cites, “the Continental Congress, beginning in 1774, adopted the traditional procedure of opening its sessions with a prayer.” Burger quotes from a document of the first Senate session to recount that one of our founders’ early items of business was “to take under consideration the manner of electing Chaplains.”
Burger notes the House followed the Senate by six days to elect its first chaplain May 1, 1789. “A statute providing for the payment of these chaplains was enacted into law on September 22, 1789,” Burger writes, adding that three days later, “final agreement was reached on the language of the Bill of Rights.
“Clearly the men who wrote the First Amendment Religion Clauses did not view (paid chaplains) and opening prayers as a violation of that Amendment.”
The Rev. Daniel P. Coughlin, a Catholic priest, is U.S. House of Representatives Chaplain. In Maryland’s General Assembly, House sessions open with the Pledge of Allegiance; then a different delegate each day offers a prayer. In the Senate, either an invited religious leader or one of the senators leads daily prayer.
Our founders, imperfect but striving, knew that political pursuits without God’s blessing were untrustworthy. History demonstrated for them -- as it does for us -- that power without God deludes, tyrannizes and destroys. Let us pray that our leaders hold fast to exceptional American principles and common sense, and never lose sight of God.