On March 25, 2014, Judge Quarles of the U.S. District Court of the District of Maryland (and a Republican appointee) issued an injunction forbidding the commissioners of Carroll County from opening their sessions with prayers invoking the name of Jesus Christ. Judge Quarles reasoned that the commissioners are guilty of advancing one particular religion to the detriment of all others. The problem with Judge Quarles’ injunction is that it is itself a direct violation of a previous ruling from the Supreme Court.
On July 5, 1983, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in a case very similar to that of the Carroll County Commission. In this case, known as Marsh v. Chambers, Mr. Ernest Chambers, a member of the Nebraska legislature, attempted to prevent the state from opening their legislative sessions with prayer. One of the arguments that Mr. Chambers presented in court was that the prayers violated the First Amendment because they regularly invoked the name of Jesus Christ.
Shanler Cronk, the attorney for the state of Nebraska, admitted in his oral arguments that many of the prayers being challenged in that case included references to Jesus Christ. When asked "Do you have any prayer in there that doesn't invoke the guidance of Christ?" Mr. Cronk replied:
there are prayers that make reference to deity identifiable to the Judaeo-Christian heritage, as Chaplain Palmer put it. There are certain prayers that expressly mention Jesus Christ. I think the record reflects roughly half, a little less than half of the prayers, in addition to making reference to deity, that might be identified in the Judaeo-Christian heritage, do mention Jesus Christ.
In spite of this admission, the justices expressly stated that they did not consider the act of praying in the name of Christ to be a violation of the establishment clause. The conclusion given in the majority opinion stated 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.
Thus in a case nearly identical to that of the Carroll County Commission, the Supreme Court concluded that mere reference to the name of Jesus Christ in a legislative prayer is perfectly acceptable under the First Amendment. And how could they claim otherwise? To say that government prayers in the name of Jesus Christ violates the First Amendment is to condemn most of the prayers by government officials throughout the entire history of this nation. In fact, after the inauguration of George Washington, the chaplain of the Senate, Samuel Provost, was asked to give an inaugural sermon in which he said:
We are occupied in the...most important business that can possibly engage the human mind...that...in the Hands of God, we shall be made the happy instruments of turning many from Darkness to Light, and from the Power of Satan to the Knowledge and Love of the Truth...Lay no other foundation than that which is already laid...upon the Doctrine of Jesus Christ, and him crucified...Let us all unite our most strenuous endeavors, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ may run and be glorified, till the earth be filled with the Knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
And less than ten years later, our second President, John Adams, issued a proclamation requesting that the entire nation:
acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching him at the same time of His infinite Grace through the Redeemer of the world, freely to remit all our offences, and to incline us, by his Holy Spirit, to that sincere Repentance and Reformation, which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favour and Heavenly Benediction.
A few years later he issued a second proclamation with nearly identical language, and according to a letter from John Adams’ Secretary of State, Timothy Pickering, the idea of recommending a public fast originated with the President, and he called upon the chaplains of Congress to help him write the proclamation:
Prior to the receipt of your letter, the President had determined to recommend the observance of a general fast; and had desired one or both the chaplains of Congress to prepare the draught of a proclamation.
If our first President had the right to ask a chaplain to preach an inaugural sermon invoking the name of Christ, and if our second President could twice call upon the entire nation to pray for forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ, then certainly the commissioners of Carroll County can pray in the name of Christ to open their sessions.
But this is not acceptable to the American Humanist Association (AHA) which is seeking damages of $10,000 per prayer which mentions the name of Christ. According to the AHA, they are only trying to protect “the non-Christians of the community who don't want to be confronted by this kind of prayer,” but in the 1952 case of Zorach v. Clausson, the Supreme Court warned that this approach to the First Amendment would have catastrophic effects on the relationship between church and state in our nation:
The First Amendment, however, does not say that in every and all respects there shall be a separation of Church and State. Rather, it studiously defines the manner, the specific ways, in which there shall be no concert or union or dependency one on the other. That is the common sense of the matter. Otherwise the state and religion would be aliens to each other—hostile, suspicious, and even unfriendly. Churches could not be required to pay even property taxes. Municipalities would not be permitted to render police or fire protection to religious groups. Policemen who helped parishioners into their places of worship would violate the Constitution. Prayers in our legislative halls; the appeals to the Almighty in the messages of the Chief Executive; the proclamations making Thanksgiving Day a holiday; "so help me God" in our courtroom oaths— these and all other references to the Almighty that run through our laws, our public rituals, our ceremonies would be flouting the First Amendment. A fastidious atheist or agnostic could even object to the supplication with which the Court opens each session: "God save the United States and this Honorable Court."
The AHA wants the commissioners of Carroll County to be found in contempt of Judge Quarles’ injunction, but in reality, Judge Quarles was himself in contempt of the ruling of the Supreme Court the moment that his injunction was issued. According to the Supreme Court, “The content of the prayer is not of concern to judges,” and Judge Quarles’ refusal to heed the decision of the superior court has indeed produced an atmosphere in his community in which the state and religion are “hostile, suspicious, and even unfriendly.” The commissioners of Carroll County should stand their ground and continue to defy this unlawful injunction.
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Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)