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A Page of History is Worth a Volume of Logic

October 17, 2017

On November 6, the United States Supreme Court will take up the issue of whether a town council can open its sessions with prayer in the case Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Legislative prayers are a time honored tradition that predates our constitution.  Our founding fathers prayed during the constitutional conventions, and continued that practice during the first Congress.  The practice of seeking divine guidance for public deliberations has continued in legislative halls throughout this country since that time.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has addressed this issue.  In 1983, the Court in Marsh v. Chambers upheld legislative prayers, basing its rationale on the history of this practice in the United States.  The Court noted “The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”

The Court pointed out “the First Congress, as one of its early items of business, adopted the policy of selecting a chaplain to open each session with prayer.”

The Court concluded, “Clearly the men who wrote the First Amendment Religion Clause did not view paid legislative chaplains and opening prayers as a violation of that Amendment, for the practice of opening sessions with prayer has continued without interruption ever since that early session of Congress.”

And if there were any doubts as to the importance of this long standing practice, the Court put them to rest, stating: “In light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society.”

But why does history matter?  It is important from both a legal and also a practical standpoint.  Legally, if a practice has continued within a jurisdiction for hundreds of years, and dates back to the time when the constitution was written, debated, and ratified, then that in itself is evidence that the writers of the constitution did not intend to outlaw such practice.  History also matters from a practical standpoint because we as a people are a product of our past.  The American people did not just arrive in the Twenty First Century.  Our institutions, communities, and culture are a product of the lives and decisions of previous generations.  We are the result of acts, decisions and occurrences of the past.  Just like the current state of the Grand Canyon is a product of years of natural occurrences, including volcanic activity, water flow and erosion, so our culture is also a product of the past.

History reminds us of who we were and who we are.  Penelope J. Corfield wrote on her blog “Why History matters” that:

All people and peoples are living histories. To take a few obvious examples: communities speak languages that are inherited from the past. They live in societies with complex cultures, traditions and religions that have not been created on the spur of the moment. People use technologies that they have not themselves invented. And each individual is born with a personal variant of an inherited genetic template, known as the genome…

She concludes with this profound truth:

So understanding the linkages between past and present is absolutely basic for a good understanding of the condition of being human. That, in a nutshell, is why History matters. It is not just 'useful', it is essential.

Our laws and institutions were not created this year.  When we as a nation obliterate a practice that has endured throughout our history, in essence, we are deleting a part of who we are.  We are deleting a part of our community’s genetic code.

The Declaration of Independence states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men ….”

Since our rights are endowed by our Creator, and as it is the government’s duty to protect those rights, then it is perfectly reasonable that legislators seek divine guidance before beginning their deliberations.  Indeed, the fabric of our community depends on it.

If you support public prayer and think this valuable tradition should continue, sign the Statement of Support for prayer.

To learn more about the case and what’s at stake, visit

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