• Key point 14-02. The courts have ruled that the first amendment allows chaplains and other ministers to pray before legislative assemblies.
Prayer on Public Property
* A federal court ruled that legislative prayers recited in Congress do not violate the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause. An atheist sued the federal government, claiming that legislative prayers in each house of Congress violated the first amendment’s nonestablishment of religion clause. Each house of Congress has a chaplain elected by its members. The chaplains, and their staffs, receive a federal salary. The plaintiff asked a federal district court to ban prayers in Congress, and to abolish legislative chaplains. The court dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the plaintiff lacked “standing” to challenge the practices he opposed, and that these practices did not offend the first amendment. It relied on a 1983 United States Supreme Court ruling (Chambers v. Marsh) that found the employment of chaplains by the Nebraska legislature to be consistent with the first amendment, since the very Congress that ratified the first amendment also authorized the employment of chaplains. The Supreme Court observed, “Clearly the men who wrote the First Amendment Religion Clause did not view paid legislative chaplains and opening prayers as a violation of that Amendment, for the practice of opening sessions with prayer has continued without interruption ever since that early session of Congress.” The Court found that the framers’ intent and the “unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years” supported its conclusion that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer was constitutional. The Court further stated that the practice had “become part of the fabric of our society,” and that “to invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an ‘establishment’ of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.” Newdow v. Eagen, 309 F.Supp.2d 29 (D.D.C. 2004).
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