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A violation by prayer
How an official national day of prayer violates not only the spirit but the letter of the Constitution

By George A. Ricker

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;….” So says the portion of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America that has to do with the relationship of religions and the government.

The words seem very clear to me, yet our society is unable to agree on what they mean. Even the Supreme Court stumbles over them and seems unable to state a clear direction, lurching from one side to the other, sometimes seeing “establishment” as nothing more than permissible accommodation and at other times striking it down as unconstitutional. Thus, the court has held the Ten Commandments, clearly a religious document, may not be posted in courtroom halls or on classroom walls but are allowed on some monuments in some public parks.

But how can there be any confusion at all over so egregious violation of the principle as the congressionally mandated presidential proclamation of a national day of prayer? Indeed, how can any politician abrogate the Constitution’s prohibition against religious establishment and pass a law that calls the people of this nation to pray or even suggests they should? How can any politician be so arrogant as to assume that his or her religious opinions have any place as the basis for any law?

Let me be absolutely clear about this. I have no quarrel with anyone’s right to pray. That right is clearly protected under the “free exercise” clause of the same amendment that prohibits “an establishment of religion.” I have no objection whatever to any religious sect or group of religious sects organizing a national observance or national day of prayer or whatever they want to call it. Here again, such activities are clearly protected by the Constitution, and I wholeheartedly endorse and support that protection. So this is not about interfering with anyone’s right to pray or chasing religious expression out of the public square.

My sole objection to the current national day of prayer is that it is an official endorsement of a religious practice by the government. It is mandated by the Congress. It is proclaimed by the president, virtually all the governors and many mayors as an official observance. Consequently, it is unconstitutional. It does not just violate the spirit of the Constitution, but the letter of the law. That portion of the public square that is owned and operated by government agencies may not be used to promote either specific religions or religion in general and has no authority to promote a religious practice of any sort.

Presidents, members of Congress and other government officials have every right to pray as they see fit. However, they have no legitimate business issuing official proclamations that invite or suggest that anyone else should join them. By their very nature such actions constitute “an establishment of religion.”

It ought not tax the abilities of religious leaders to organize and conduct a national day of prayer without involving government at all. The NDP Task Force already has a glitzy web site. It has plenty of money and loads of contacts. A “National Day of Prayer,” organized privately, requires no government sanction of any kind. Government officials are certainly free to participate in observances, as they see fit, in their capacities as private citizens. In the age of the Internet and the World Wide Web, publicity is no problem. Besides, there are large segments of the media that willingly promote religions and give such events all the free publicity they need.

So there are very good reasons why government agencies ought not be involved in a “National Day of Prayer” and there is no good reason why they should be involved. It simply is not part of the function of a secular government in a democratic society to be promoting religions or religious practices of any kind. At least one of our presidents understood that about two centuries ago.

More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson refused to declare a national day of prayer and thanksgiving. In a letter to Rev. Samuel Miller, written in the last year of his second term as president (on Jan. 23, 1808), Jefferson outlined his reasons as follows:

• The government of the United States was interdicted by the Constitution from meddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, disciplines or exercises.

• Any power that might exist to regulate such matters was reserved to individual practitioners, religious societies and the governments of the respective states.

Jefferson wrote, “Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining of them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.”

He concluded: “…civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U.S. and no authority to direct the religious exercise of his constituents.”

But if the third president of the United States had a clear understanding of the proper relationship between government and religions, i.e. one of neutrality, most of our presidents have not. Whether through genuine religious sentiment or blatant pandering to the perceived religious preferences of the majority, presidents have found it difficult to resist the constant pressure to give an official stamp of approval to religions in general and Christianity in particular. Jefferson thought it always was inappropriate for a president to issue a proclamation endorsing days of prayer and thanksgiving. Today, politicians seem scarcely able to contain their enthusiasm for new and ever more outrageous ways to make it appear that Christianity is the (unofficial) official religion of the United States of America.

As I wrote these words the legislature of Florida, which is my home state, was considering the issuance of two new license tags. One would have featured the image of a crucified Christ. Thankfully we only see the upper torso, sans nailed hands and without the gore. The other would have a stained glass window with a Christian cross in front of it. Now these were to be specialized plates. They must be ordered, and they cost more than regular tags. Our Republican governor, Charlie Crist, said he would sign the bills approving the plates. Asked whether he thought they violated the doctrine of church/state separation, Crist said those who didn’t like the plates didn’t have to buy them. He opined that since we already have “In God We Trust” on our money (and also now available on Florida license tags) and so on, there was no harm in issuing these new plates. Fortunately, the legislative session ended before the plates could be approved by the full legislature. But past performance suggests the supporters of these plates will be back again next year.

And therein lies one of the problems with all of this.

Christian fundamentalists are continually attempting to insert their religions into government. They would love nothing better than an official declaration that we are, in fact, a Christian nation, even though the idea is repugnant to anyone who has actually studied American history. So we now have the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance to our flag and the motto “In God We Trust” emblazoned on our money. We have a National Day of Prayer ordered by Congress. We have Ten Commandments monuments occupying the landscape of many of our nation’s public parks. There is constant agitation to inject religious concepts into science classes and to undermine the teaching of real science in favor of promoting religious myth.

Virtually all of this has come about in the last 50 years or so. In fact, the overt religiosity of our government agencies has increased at the same time our society has grown more secular. It is as if that “old-time religion” has become aware it is losing ground and is desperately trying to forestall the inevitable by carving out as many official footholds as possible.

I repeat. Let the religious societies organize and promote their own national day of prayer. They do not need government’s approval or assistance to do so, and they have no business seeking it. It inhibits the free exercise of religion not at all when government stays out of religious practices. The rights of conscience of all the citizenry are imperiled, however, when government establishes either religions or religious practices.

© 2009 by George A. Ricker

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