States Fight to Keep God in Inauguration Ceremony

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Writer

A bipartisan coalition of Attorneys General representing all 50 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands has taken legal action to defend the constitutionality of prayer during the upcoming presidential inauguration.

“Despite more than two hundred years of established tradition – and no legal precedent for their challenge – a group of activists have asked the courts to interfere with President-elect Obama’s right to pray and invoke God during his inauguration as forty-fourth President of the United States,” said Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is leading the defense of this long-standing tradition.

Abbott authored an amicus brief submitted by the states in defense of prayer at the inauguration as well as the President-elect’s right to say “so help me God” after reciting the oath of office.

The action was taken in an effort to defeat a legal challenge by activist Michael Newdow and several atheist organizations who filed a lawsuit on Dec. 30, 2008 claiming that prayer and an oath of office that includes the words ‘so help me God’ violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

The states disagree. “Public acknowledgements of God at official functions have been customary since the nation’s founding,” said Abbott in a Jan. 8 press release.

“President George Washington began an unbroken, 200-year tradition when he inserted the phrase ‘so help me God’ at the end of his oath of office in 1789. Today it is common for prayers and oaths invoking God to be incorporated into swearing-in ceremonies across the country.”

For instance, members of the United States Congress are sworn-in using an oath that invokes the Almighty. When the 111th Congress convened on Jan. 6, House and Senate Chaplains delivered a prayer just before Senators and Representatives recited an oath of office that incorporated the phrase ‘so help me God.’”

According to Abbott, the constitutionality of public acknowledgements of God by governmental institutions has been repeatedly affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. He quotes Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who said such religious observances are used for “solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society.”

This is not the first time Abbott has taken on Newdow in the fight to keep God in the public square. In 2003, he helped thwart Newdow’s attempt to remove the words “under God” from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. In 2007, he defeated a separate lawsuit attempting to remove the words “under God” from the Texas Pledge of Allegiance.

Abbott has also personally appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court, where he successfully defended a Ten Commandments monument on the Texas Capitol grounds.

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