Barack Obama and Potter Stewart
Barack Obama concluded his 9/8/09 speech to a captive audience of America’s government school-educated children with this sign-off: “Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.” (emphasis added) If Obama – in his official governmental capacity – can compel the attention of America’s public schools for an affirmation of God’s blessings, shouldn’t we follow his example? Henceforth, God-fearing public school teachers might start their school days with a reminder – verbatim from Obama’s lips – to their students:
“Get serious this year. Put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.”
Actually, this language is not unlike the New York Board of Regents’ prayer that was nullified in the extraordinary 1962 case of Engle v. Vitale: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on thee, and we beg thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” Earl Warren’s supreme Court, in derogation of the free exercise clause those justices were sworn to uphold, nullified that prayer. In that case, Potter Stewart (1915-1985), the only justice with prior judicial experience before taking his position on the U.S. supreme Court, filed this dissent:
“A local school board in New York has provided that those pupils who wish to do so may join in a brief prayer at the beginning of each school day, acknowledging their dependence upon God and asking His blessing upon them and upon their parents, their teachers, and their country. The Court today decides that in permitting this brief nondenominational prayer the school board has violated the Constitution of the United States. I think this decision is wrong.
“The Court does not hold, nor could it, that New York has interfered with the free exercise of anybody’s religion. For the state courts have made clear that those who object to reciting the prayer must be entirely free of any compulsion to do so, including any ’embarrassments and pressures.’ But the Court says that in permitting school children to say this simple prayer, the New York authorities have established ‘an official religion.’
“With all respect, I think the Court has misapplied a great constitutional principle. I cannot see how an ‘official religion’ is established by letting those who want to say a prayer say it. On the contrary, I think that to deny the wish of these school children to join in reciting this prayer is to deny them the opportunity of sharing in the spiritual heritage of our Nation … For we deal not here with the establishment of a state church, which would, of course, be constitutionally impermissible, but with whether school children who want to begin their day by joining in prayer must be prohibited from doing so.
“Moreover, I think that the Court’s task, in this as in all areas of constitutional adjudication, is not responsibly aided by the uncritical invocation of metaphors like the ‘wall of separation,’ a phrase nowhere to be found in the Constitution.
“At the opening of each day’s Session of this Court, we stand while one of our officials invokes the protection of God. Since the days of John Marshall our Crier has said, ‘God save the United States and this Honorable Court.’ Both the Senate and the House of Representatives open their daily sessions with prayer. Each of our Presidents, from George Washington to John F. Kennedy, has upon assuming his Office asked the protection and help of God.
“The Court today says that the state and federal governments are without constitutional power to prescribe any particular form of words to be recited by any group of the American people on any subject touching religion. One of the stanzas of “The Star Spangled Banner,” made our National Anthem by an Act of Congress in 1931, contains these verses:
“Blessed with victory and peace,
may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Pow’r that hath made
and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must,
when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto,
‘In God is our Trust'”
“In 1954 Congress added these words to the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag: ‘one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ In 1952, Congress enacted legislation calling upon the President each year to proclaim a National Day of Prayer. Since 1865, the words IN GOD WE TRUST have been impressed on our coins.
“Countless similar examples could be listed, but there is no need to belabor the obvious. It was all summed up by this Court just ten years ago in a single sentence: ‘We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’
“I do not believe that this Court, or the Congress, or the President, has by the actions and practices I have mentioned established an ‘official religion’ in violation of the Constitution. And I do not believe the State of New York has done so in this case. What each has done has been to recognize and to follow the deeply entrenched and highly cherished spiritual traditions of our Nation – traditions which come down to us from those who almost two hundred years ago avowed their ‘firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence’ when they proclaimed the freedom and independence of this brave new world. I dissent.”