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11 September 2010

First Prayer in Congress

Amendment I:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Offered by Rev. Mr. Duché, in Carpenter's Hall, Philadelphia, 7 September 1774:

Be Thou Present, O God of Wisdom, and direct the council of this Honorable Assembly; enable them to settle all things on the best and surest foundations; that the scenes of blood may be speedily closed; that Order, Harmony and Peace may be effectually restored, and that Truth and Justice, Religion and Piety, prevail and flourish among the people.

Preserve the health of their bodies, and the vigor of their minds, shower down on them, and the millions they here represent, such temporal Blessings as Thou seest expedient for them in this world, and crown them with everlasting Glory in the world to come. All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Saviour, Amen.

Congress recorded their appreciation for this prayer:

Wednesday, September 7, 1774, 9 o'clock a.m. Agreeable to the resolve of yesterday, the meeting was opened with prayers by the Rev. Mr. Duché. Voted, That the thanks of Congress be given to Mr. Duché... for performing divine Service, and for the excellent prayer, which he composed and delivered on the occasion.

Reprinted in America's God and Country, page 221.

For a discussion of the phrase "separation of church and state" try this post.


Doug Indeap said...

The phrase “separation of church and state” is but a metaphor to describe the underlying principle of the First Amendment and the no-religious-test clause of the Constitution. That the phrase does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, only to those who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and later learned they were mistaken. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to describe one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that is the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

The First Amendment embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you. http://tiny.cc/6nnnx

Ritsumei said...

At the outset, I think it only fair to say that my interest in the Constitution is primarily to figure out how things ought to be and work toward achieving that. I am an unabashed originalist. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were, at the Founding, amazing documents that guaranteed previously unprecedented levels of freedom. My interest in the way things are now goes only so far as to (1) remain a law-abiding citizen and (2) find places where the law has strayed from the principles and protections present in the Constitution at the Founding and correct them.

That being said, let me reply to your comment.

While I agree with much of what you say, and appreciate the link to the article and look forward to reading it, I must say that my experience with the phrase "separation of church and state" is considerably different from yours. Generally, when I have seen people throwing around that phrase it has been in order to use it as a bludgeon to banish religion and religious people from the public arena. The phrase "separation of church and state," as I have seen it used, is something used by the likes of the ACLU to silence people of faith and prevent religious organizations from participating in any political process.

The 1st Amendment deals with religion in two different ways: the first, the Establishment Clause, as you correctly explain, prohibits any national religion or governmental endorsement or favoring of one faith over another. As I understand it, the 14th Amendment makes this rule apply to State and Local governments as well.

Twin to the Establishment Clause is the Free Exercise Clause. This guarantees us the right to exercise our faith, even in public. The phrase "separation of church and state" is often used as an excuse to ride rough-shod over this right.

To use prayer in school as an example, for the teacher or the principle to sponsor prayers or require participation would be establishing religion in government schools. Clearly forbidden by the Establishment Clause. However. The student that wants to pray over their food or prior to the test they have to take, the child that wishes to wear a hijab or a cross, is protected in their right to do so by the Free Exercise Clause - or they should be.

In order to truly enjoy religious freedom, we must have both clauses working effectively in partnership, and currently the Free Exercise clause is being torn to shreds by the courts.

Doug Indeap said...

I get the impression that our understandings of the principle are much the same. It does not prohibit prayer in schools; nor does it purge religion from the public square, as some (on both "sides") assert--far from it. As you note, the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views--publicly as well as privately.

The "establishment" clause constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in their classrooms), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment's constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated.

While figuring out whether someone is acting in an official or private capacity in any given circumstance can be complex, recognizing the distinction is critical. The courts work hard to draw this line, and reasonable people may disagree about the results reached in individual cases; such disagreement, though, should not call into question the basic principle.


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