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At practically all levels of government, dysfunction is an all too familiar reality. Nowhere is this more obvious to the American people than in what they see happening in Washington day after day. Yet, despite the often contentious and divisive debates that take place in Congress, every morning in the U.S. Senate we are reminded of the truly important things that unite us as "one nation, under God."
Every day before debate commences, the Senate pauses for prayer and reflection. It is an opportunity for senators to affirm what unites us and those we represent, and to reflect on the profound duty we owe our fellow Americans. As a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values, legislative bodies throughout the country, from the Senate down to local city governments, have made prayer a routine part of their day before getting down to the people's business. Unfortunately, a recent ruling by a federal court in New York threatens to put an end to this.
The latest skirmish in this battle comes from the town of Greece, New York. There, the town council invites guest chaplains to lead a prayer before each session. The opportunity to deliver the prayer (or reflection) is open to individuals of all faiths, and none at all. Prayers have been offered by members of various Christian denominations, the Jewish faith, and a Wiccan. Nevertheless, because the town is overwhelmingly Christian, so are a large number of prayers. This was too much for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled the town had violated the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the establishment of religion.
This ruling is astounding and runs counter to what America has always been. The decision would put courts between Americans and their conscience, evaluating and second-guessing the content of prayers. The Second Circuit was frank about this, admitting that its ruling "may well prompt municipalities to pause and think carefully before adoption legislative prayer." If allowed to stand this decision would jeopardize not just legislative prayer, but it would also push the country one step further towards the "naked public square" where religion is stigmatized, feared, and something best kept private.
Legislative prayer has roots as deep as the country. In 1789, the first Senate elected the Episcopal Bishop of New York as its first Chaplain to lead the body in prayer. As our country has grown more diverse, so has the practice of prayer in the Senate. Chaplains have been drawn from a variety of Christian faiths, and the Senate has regularly been led in prayer by guest chaplains from other major religions, including Judaism, Islam and Hinduism.
Prayer has been a hallmark of not just the Senate, but the House of Representatives, and state and local legislatures around the country. Legislative prayer is as familiar as the Pledge of Allegiance, and has a longer pedigree. Yet, it is a practice that is under assault by those who badly misunderstand Americans' unique appreciation for the complementary roles of faith and freedom in our constitutional republic.
As a constitutional matter, the error of the Second Circuit's decision is underscored by the fact that the very same Congress that wrote the First Amendment, also made the decision to hire salaried chaplains to serve its religious needs. In fact, these two things were done literally within days of each other.
Our Founders, and generations of Americans since, sought freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. They sought a place where they had freedom of conscience, not a place devoid of religion. This is part of the genius of America, a place where we do not feel threatened by each other's faiths. While the First Amendment rightly prohibits the government from establishing and imposing an official church, religion has been welcomed in public discourse and legislative chambers from the beginning, and we are a stronger nation because of it.
Two years before the Declaration of Independence, the First Continental Congress debated how delegates of diverse religions could possibly pray together. Samuel Adams rose to say that "he was no Bigot, and could hear a Prayer from a Gentleman of Piety and Virtue, who was at the same time a Friend of his country." Adams, a Congregationalist, then moved to appoint an Anglican to lead a prayer. His colleagues agreed.
Unlike so many other countries around the world, America always has been a place where religion brings people together. In times of war and peace, tragedy and triumph, prayer has brought us together. Prayer has and inspired many of the great reforms that have strengthened and delivered on the promises of liberty made in 1776. There are many things wrong with Washington today, but the American tradition of legislative prayer is not one of them.
The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering an appeal from the Town of Greece. Along with 33 of my Senate colleagues, I have filed an amicus brief in support of protecting legislative prayer from assaults by liberal activist judges. In doing so, we are not just taking a stand for one town under assault by those who wish to eliminate religion from our public life. We are also taking a stand for a tradition of legislative prayer that was adopted at our founding, has helped unite our nation us for over two centuries, and serves as a daily reminder of all the blessings that God has bestowed on our exceptional nation.