Some historians have attributed the strength of religious institutions in the U.S., and the relative peace among faith groups, to this separation principle.
These criteria are continuously in a state of creative tension. Americans are divided on this aspect of religion:
Current precedents and court decisions appear to have reached a compromise in he matter of invocations before government bodies. The consensus is that such invocations do not constitute private speech, which is fully protected. They seem to agree that it is acceptable to mention "God" in generic prayers recited during invocations. But it is not permissible to mention a specific God or religion by name. So one can appeal for the protection of "God" in the generic sense. But one is not permitted to mention the name of Jehovah, Jesus, Krishna, Diana, or any of the thousands of other Gods, Goddesses and God-men who have been worshiped by followers of different religions. This would seem to violate the third principle listed above: the promotion of religion above secularism. But it appears that the courts and legislative bodies do not consider this to have a significantly serious impact to warrant being declared unconstitutional. Perhaps in the future, when the percentage of American adults who do not believe in the existence of a supreme deity increases, this point will become more critical.
The First Amendment "giveth," because it guarantees almost uninhibited personal religious freedom. But the First Amendment also "taketh away:" It requires governments, including municipalities and Boards of Education, to remain religiously neutral; they may not promote either a religious or a secular way of life.
One point of confusion has arisen over Islam. As noted above, a reference to "God" is OK but to Jesus Christ or Jesus or Christ is not because the latter three identify a specific deity by name or title. "Allah" is simply the word in Arabic that is equivalent to "God" in English. "Allah" is neither a name or title. Christians whose native language is Arabic use "Allah" where an English person would say "God." Thus a government agency including a military chaplain, can refer to "Allah" in a prayer but not to "Jesus."
1983 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court:
Apparently, none of the many religion cases decided before the 21st century by the U.S. Supreme Court involved prayer at a meeting of a municipal council.
However, one case refers to a state legislative body: Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983). The court decided that the Nebraska Legislature did not violate the Establishment Clause by hiring a chaplain to lead a daily prayer. The court ruling concluded that: "The content of the prayer is not of concern to judges where, as here, there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief. That being so, it is not for us to embark on a sensitive evaluation or to parse the content of a particular prayer." The Supreme Court noted in a footnote to its ruling that the chaplain of the Nebraska Legislature had ceased mentioning Jesus during his prayer after having received a complaint from a Jewish legislator.
1999: Prayers at the Burbank, CA, municipal council meetings:
The laws that govern prayers before municipal council meetings also govern prayers at public school graduations, public school sports events, etc. Perhaps the closest comparison in a school system to a council invocation would be prayers before Board of Education meetings. In 1999, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals ruled that the Board of Education in Cleveland, OH, cannot pray before their meetings. They ruled that prayers are an illegal endorsement of religion. 1
Since 1953, Burbank council meetings had been opened with an invocation, usually delivered by a member of the Burbank Ministerial Association. The group is mostly Christian, and has no members from Baha'i faith, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. In 1999-NOV, Irv Rubin, the late leader of the Jewish Defense League, joined a number of other plaintiffs to launch a lawsuit against the City of Burbank, CA. 2 He was distressed to hear a member of the Mormon church say during an invocation before a municipal meeting:
The Superior Court of Los Angeles ruled that sectarian invocations of this type violated the principle of separation of church and state.
In 2002-SEP-9, Division Two of the Court of Appeal upheld the ruling. 4 Judge Doi Todd wrote:
Amicus Curia briefs supporting the invocation were filed by Fundamentalist Christian group, the American Center for Law and Justice and by 34 other California cities. A brief from the Council for Secular Humanism's opposed the invocation.
Roger Diamond, attorney for the plaintiffs, shouted "praise the Lord!" when interviewed by a Reuters reporter. He said that his clients were not "anti-religion." However, they believed that prayer belonged in churches, temples and mosques and not in government. He said that the invocation cited in the court case:
Mayor David Laurell said: "I think we need to
take this ruling to the highest court of the land. It has already had statewide
impact and could have nationwide impact." In response to the court
ruling, at least five Orange County cities - Buena Park, Fullerton, Laguna
Niguel, La Palma, and San Clemente have modified their policies concerning
This topic continues on a second essay
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Links to web sites which deal with church-state separation issues:
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