Two Justices Refuse to Block Prayers at Inauguration

Two Justices Refuse to Block Prayers at Inauguration (Bloomberg)

Two U.S. Supreme Court justices rejected a California atheist’s bid to block clergy-led prayer at tomorrow’s inauguration ceremony for President George W. Bush. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice John Paul Stevens, in separate orders, today denied an emergency-injunction request filed in Washington by Michael Newdow. Two Christian ministers — Episcopal Rev. Luis Leon of Washington and Methodist Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell of Houston — are slated to say prayers at the inauguration.

Newdow said in court papers that the past 17 public inaugurations, dating back to 1937, have all included “blatantly Christian prayer.” He said he has tickets to the event, yet “cannot in good conscience attend an exercise where his government forces him to endure religious dogma he finds highly disagreeable.” Newdow last year unsuccessfully urged the Supreme Court to bar public school teachers from leading recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase “under God.” In the inauguration case, Newdow went to the Supreme Court after losing at two lower court levels. Last week, U.S. District Judge John Bates wrote that “inaugural prayer can be traced to the founding of this country” and probably didn’t violate the Constitution’s ban on government sponsorship of religion.

Given that prayers have been banned from such events as high school graduations, I’m not sure that this truly squares with judicial precedent. That Stevens, arguably the most liberal Justice on the Court (even though he’s an appointee of Republican Gerald Ford), does not find ceremonial prayers in violation of the Establishment Clause demonstrates just how deeply engrained such things are in our culture. The Court has long fudged the issue on this ground, deeming it not to be unconstitutional for the government to recognize Christmas even while declining to similarly honor other religion’s holy days.

As a non-religious person who will be attending the event, this just doesn’t bother me. Attendance is voluntary. Having a Christian minister swear George W. Bush in on a Holy Bible does not establish a religion in our society; it merely recognizes our cultural heritage.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Just Me says:

    I think one difference in a high school audience and an inaugaration is that the high school group is a captive audience of minors, while an inaugaration involves adults (who may choose to bring their children) and are aware of the fact that there may be overtly religious prayers at the event. Not sure exactly how it squares with the actual court cases, but just thinking about it, that is an obvious difference.

  2. James Joyner says:

    JM: That’s certainly a big part of it. There’s bigger leeway given when adults are involved and for truly voluntary events.

  3. jen says:

    And it recognizes the faith of the person being sworn in. I think that were the President of a faith other than Christian this would be a moot point in the courts.

  4. Pam says:

    You know, originally the separation of church and state was about the US not making a national church!! This is getting too convoluted for me. Fekkin’ idgits!

  5. anjin-san says:

    I just don’t see a problem with having a prayer or using a bible for the inauguration. If someone tried to make it mandatory, that would be a legit issue.

  6. Kent says:

    Having a Christian minister swear George W. Bush in on a Holy Bible does not establish a religion in our society; it merely recognizes our cultural heritage.

    More to the point, it recognizes Bush’s cultural heritage. Only the act of being sworn in is prescribed by the Constitution. Otherwise, this is Bush’s day. He should have a certain latitude in how he celebrates it.