Reference to God has been present in our public life from the very beginning. The Declaration of Independence acknowledges God in four separate places. The Framers of that instrument announced that the colonies were assuming “the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them.”
The Declaration states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Those who signed the Declaration proclaimed: “And for the support of this Declaration, with the firm reliance in the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
The Continental Congress opened its sessions, beginning in 1774, with prayer delivered by a clergyman. In 1776, regular chaplains were authorized and subsequently appointed by Congress. In 1778, Congress provided an annual salary for chaplains.
In 1787, Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance for the governance of the Northwest Territory. Article 3 proclaimed: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall ever be encouraged.”
Those who seek to create in America an entirely secular society seem unaware of the historic connection between religious faith and public life in our history. Professor Charles Rice, in his book, The Supreme Court and Public Prayer, notes, “… the public life of the American states was based upon the unapologetic conviction that there is a God who exercises a benevolent providence over the affairs of man. This is not to say that all Americans then recognized God, or that there was agreement on all the details of His attributes. But to those who assert that the First Amendment was designed to prevent the government from recognizing God and praying His aid, it can rightly be said that they will have to find evidence for their claim elsewhere than in the history of the period prior to 1787.”
In his book, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, Yale law professor Stephen Carter argues that religious devotion has been trivialized in public life in recent years. He laments that because the United States was founded on the concept that our very liberties come from God, removing God from the public sphere delegitimizes the very basis upon which we believe in individual rights.
In the latest Supreme Court decision, Justice Kennedy suggested that some prayers may be unacceptable if offered consistently, including ones that “denigrate non-believers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion.” But without proof of “a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose,” he wrote, “a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation.”
The Court’s majority has quite properly reaffirmed religion’s role in our public life; and in doing so, it has been true to our history.