Culture, Science & Faith

Freedom of Religion Is Still in the First Amendment

The Supreme Court rules that public prayer is constitutional.

May 6, 2014

George Washington, a devoted Episcopalian, wrote that, should we want our Liberty secure and freedom to endure, we must “acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, obey his will, be grateful for his benefits, and humbly implore his protection and favors.” He also said of faith and the American experiment, “The Hand of providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.”

John Adams likewise wrote, “[R]eligion and virtue are the only foundations, not of republicanism and of all free government, but of social felicity under all government and in all the combinations of human society.”

So why is it so appalling to today’s crop of leftists that a city council might follow this great American tradition and begin its session with prayer? Or that students speaking at a graduation might wish to acknowledge the role of God in their lives? Whatever the reason, the public expression of faith is a key battle in our culture.

In fact, prayer before legislative sessions is at the core of numerous legal battles around the country. On Monday, just four days after the National Day of Prayer, the Supreme Court ruled that prayer before a city council meeting in Greece, New York, is constitutional. Five justices agreed that such prayers do not violate the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of religion, and are an important part of American tradition dating all the way back to our Founders. The Court ruled similarly in another case 30 years ago.

Unfortunately, four justices agreed with the plaintiffs – two women claiming offense because praying clergy are predominantly Christian in a predominantly Christian town. And the decision itself overturned a Second Circuit ruling in favor of the plaintiffs.

Writing for the Court’s minority, Obama appointee Elena Kagan insisted that any public prayer must be completely nonsectarian and generic. Generally worthless, in other words. But worse, her proposed tectonic shift in constitutional interpretation would essentially require that politicos pre-approve prayers to ensure compliance with leftist political correctness.

That political correctness, says columnist Bill Murchison, is central to “progressive” philosophy. “The secularism of the Western cultural and political left – its persistent indifference to religious faith – may be its most conspicuous attribute. Having written off God for most worldly purposes, liberals can proceed to the construction of their own snug, secure, non-religious vision of human affairs and relationships. No unchangeable realities, no moral systems; just good old free-floating politics, founded on polls, warm thoughts and law review articles.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy addressed Kagan’s nonsense in his majority opinion, writing, “The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian.”

Kennedy also wrote, “As practiced by Congress since the framing of the Constitution, legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.” Heaven knows we could use a bit more of that. Furthermore, Kennedy said, “That the First Congress provided for the appointment of chaplains only days after approving language for the First Amendment demonstrates that the Framers considered legislative prayer a benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.”

Indeed, public prayer didn’t create a constitutional crisis for those who wrote and ratified it. That should tell us all we need to know.

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