Were Prayers at Trump’s Inauguration Legal?

The 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee invited six faith leaders to participate in the Trump/Pence swearing-in ceremony. The announcement of the diverse and broad clergy lineup affirmed the new administration’s commitment to “honor the vital role religious faith plays in our multicultural, vibrant nation.”

The formal announcement identified those giving scriptural readings, invocations, or benedictions at this public ritual as Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan (Archbishop of New York), and Reverend Dr. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and Franklin Graham of Samaritan’s Purse and The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

In addition, the swearing-in ceremonies featured Rabbi Marvin Hier, Dean and Founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, Pastor Paula White of New Destiny Christian Center in Florida, and Bishop Wayne T. Jackson of Detroit’s Great Faith Ministries International.

Apparently, blessings at presidential inaugurations have been a part these ceremonies for more than two centuries and were initially conducted by the salaried Senate chaplain. However, since 1933, various clergy have been invited to participate by the president-elect. Billy Graham, Franklin Graham’s famous-evangelist father, offered prayers at the presidential inaugurations of Richard Nixon (in 1969), George H.W. Bush (in 1989) and Bill Clinton (in 1993 and 1997). Additionally, known as the “pastor to presidents,” the senior Graham has also led private prayer services before the inaugural ceremonies.

However, in our hyper and politically correct society, inviting clergy involvement in recent inaugural ceremonies has been criticized on the basis of “separation of church and state.” Or, if Jesus Christ or of the Trinity were mentioned in these “parochial prayers,” some have been accused of offending non-Christian citizens.

Author and historian Bill Federer has written on this subject and has collected segments of judicial rulings, proving that the U.S. Constitution does not require complete “separation of Church and State.”  Here are just a few judicial comments to consider:

  • Justice William O. Douglaswrote in the majority decision in the 1952 case of Zorach v. Clauson: “The First Amendment, however, does not say that in every and all respects there shall be a separation of Church and State …

Otherwise, the state and religion would be aliens to each other — hostile, suspicious, and even unfriendly…”

Justice Douglas continued: “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being … When the state encourages religious instruction … it follows the best of our traditions.

For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs.

To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe …”

Justice Douglas concluded: “We find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence …

We cannot read into the Bill of Rights such a philosophy of hostility to religion.”
  • In the 1984 decision of Lynch v DonnellyChief Justice Warren E. Burgerreferenced Justice O’Douglas’ Zorach v. Clauson opinion: “The concept of a ‘wall’ of separation between church and state is a … figure of speech … but the metaphor itself is not a wholly accurate description of the practical aspects of the relationship that in fact exists between church and state.

The Constitution does not require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any.

Anything less would require the ‘callous indifference’ (Zorach v. Clauson), that was never intended by the Establishment Clause …

Indeed, we have observed, such hostility would bring us into ‘war with our national tradition as embodied in the First Amendment’s guaranty of the free exercise of religion. (McCollum) …”
  • Justice Potter Stewart wrotein his dissent of Engle v Vitale, 1962: “The Court … is not aided … by the … invocation of metaphors like the ‘wall of separation,’ a phrase nowhere to be found in the Constitution.
  • Justice Stanley Reedwrote in his dissent of McCullum v Board of Education, 1948:
”Rule of law should not be drawn from a figure of speech.”
  • Judge Richard Suhrheinrichwrote in ACLU v Mercer County, 2006: “The ACLU makes repeated reference to ‘the separation of church and state.’ This extra-constitutional construct has grown tiresome. 
The First Amendment does not demand a wall of separation between church and state. Our nation’s history is replete with governmental acknowledgment and in some cases, accommodation of religion.”
  • Justice William Rehnquistwrote in his dissent of Wallace v Jaffree, 1984: “The ‘wall of separation between church and State’ is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned. 
It is impossible to build sound constitutional doctrine upon a mistaken understanding of Constitutional history …
  • Justice Anthony Kennedyhas written: “The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech …

 Prayers at presidential inaugurations are not only legal but desirable. As “a religious people,” such public prayers bring a solemn and satisfying experience to the ceremonies, which tie us to our past and add to our values and views, for our common future!

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Gary Curtis

Gary Curtis is a recently retired minister who writes a blog, where he seeks to relate a biblical worldview regarding societal issues of public interest. Trying to be “salt and light,” as Jesus commands, these brief blog-posts are primarily pro-life, pro-family and pro-religious liberties, while also speaking up for the people and nation of Israel.

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