For centuries, public bodies in America have opened meetings with a prayer. Yes, it’s a part of the American tradition, but why?
The courts have recently considered this question in two separate cases, Barker v. Conroy and Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) – which in 2014 successfully defended a challenge to the opening prayer practice of Greece, NY before the U.S. Supreme Court in Town of Greece v. Galloway – filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both Barker and Fields.
For decades members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives have allowed members to invite clergy from a variety of religious traditions to serve as guest chaplains to open their meetings with a prayer. Guest chaplains are free to pray as they wish and are encouraged to respect the people of many different faiths present during the prayers. One of the few rules of both Houses is that the guest chaplain believes in the existence of God. Avowed atheists and others who reject the existence of a divine being filed separate federal lawsuits challenging the rules.
In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit decided Barker and found the U.S. House of Representatives’ rule was consistent with the historical practices and followed the pattern set by the Framers of the Constitution.
And last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued its decision in the Fields case, going even a step further than the Barker decision. The court’s decision hinged on the fundamental question: What is the purpose of the opening prayer?
The challengers claimed that their opening message would appeal to noble aspirations and higher principles that would bring the same benefits of prayer. Several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have identified many benefits of legislative prayers that do not depend on religious content. For example, prayers can lend gravity to a meeting; encourage leaders to put aside difference and strive towards common goals; and promote ideals like justice, peace, and wisdom. Certainly sending such good vibes can be done without reference to God.
But a prayer is not simply a call to higher principles or a message of encouragement. It is more than promoting a good vibe. It is an appeal to a higher authority capable of granting the appeal. Most often “prayer” is used to refer to an appeal to God. But not always. For example, lawyers conclude the initial papers filed in a lawsuit with a “prayer for relief.” It is not a petition to God, rather it is a request to a higher authority who has the power to act.
This appeal to authority is demonstrated throughout history.
During the Constitutional Convention, the Founding Fathers were at an impasse. Benjamin Franklin stood and requested the members begin their deliberations with prayer. Franklin explained that prayer was needed because “God governs in the affairs of men” and without His aid, political endeavors are unstable and lead to division and fighting. This is consistent with the Supreme Court’s description of legislative prayer – “invoking Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making laws.”
And so it is not a surprise that the Third Circuit concluded that a belief in “the existence of a higher power to whom one can pray for divine guidance in lawmaking – is a necessary element of traditional legislative prayer.” The court also noted “A legislative body is free to open its sessions with secular invocations. We hold only that it is not required to do so.”
After all, if the lawmakers are simply looking for good vibes, they are free to include anyone willing to give them. But if they truly want Divine guidance, it only makes sense to invite those who actually believe in a God capable of hearing the prayers and giving that guidance.