Thursday, January 8, 2009

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Attorney General Abbott Defends Constitutionality of Prayer During Presidential Inauguration

AUSTIN – Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and a bipartisan coalition of Attorneys General representing all fifty states and the U.S. Virgin Islands today took legal action to defend the constitutionality of prayer during President-elect Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration. In an amicus brief that was authored by Attorney General Abbott and filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the state Attorneys General also defended the President-elect’s right to say the words “so help me God” while reciting the presidential oath of office.

“Since President George Washington uttered the words ‘so help me God’ at his first inauguration in 1789, American presidents have a longstanding, historic tradition of invoking the Almighty at their inaugural ceremonies,” said Attorney General Greg Abbott. “Despite more than two hundred years of established tradition – and no legal precedent for their challenge – a group of activists have asked the courts to interfere with President-elect Obama’s right to pray and invoke God during his inauguration as forty-fourth President of the United States. Today’s legal action reflects a concerted bipartisan, fifty-state effort to defend a constitutional acknowledgment of faith during an inaugural celebration.”

Media links
Friend of the Court brief by Texas,
all other states, and the U.S. Virgin Islands
Sound bites from Attorney General Greg Abbott
Abbott: We will defend the constitutionalty of prayer.
Abbott: We take these challenges very seriously.
Abbott: This is the latest attempt to challenge references to God.

The states filed their amicus brief in an effort to defeat a legal challenge that activist Michael Newdow and several atheist organizations filed on Dec. 30, 2008. Their lawsuit claims that the longstanding inaugural traditions—prayer and an oath of office that includes the words ‘so help me God’—violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Public acknowledgements of God at official functions have been customary since the nation’s founding. President George Washington began an unbroken, 200-year tradition when he inserted the phrase “so help me God” at the end of his oath of office in 1789. Today it is common for prayers and oaths invoking God to be incorporated into swearing-in ceremonies across the country. For example, Article XVI, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution provides that all appointed and elected officers shall take an oath of office – and that constitutional oath includes the phrase “so help me God.”

At the federal level, members of the United States Congress are also sworn-in using an oath that invokes the Almighty. When the 111th Congress convened Tuesday, the House and Senate Chaplains delivered a prayer just before Senators and Representatives recited an oath of office that incorporated the phrase “so help me God.”

The constitutionality of public acknowledgements of God by governmental institutions has been repeatedly affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. In Marsh v. Chambers, the high court upheld the constitutionality of opening every legislative session with a clergy-led prayer. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has noted, such religious observances are used for “solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society.”

Explaining the states’ legal position, Texas Solicitor General James Ho said: “Plaintiffs are not just challenging Presidential traditions; they are effectively attacking the laws and customs of virtually every state in the Union, including oaths of office in at least 20 state constitutions. But they are unable to cite a single state authority to cite their challenge. From daily prayers during legislative sessions to monuments on public property displaying the Ten Commandments, the United States Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of official acknowledgments of faith."

The states’ brief in Michael Newdow, et al. v. Hon. John Roberts, Jr. reflects Attorney General Abbott’s latest effort to lead a multi-state defense of public acknowledgments of God. In a 2003 amicus brief that was filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of all 50 states, Attorney General Abbott successfully helped thwart Newdow’s attempt to remove the words “under God” from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. In 2007, he defeated a separate lawsuit attempting to remove the words “under God” from the Texas Pledge of Allegiance.

Attorney General Abbott also personally appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court, where he successfully defended a Ten Commandments monument on the Texas Capitol grounds. In that case, Van Orden v. Perry, the plaintiff sought to remove a Ten Commandments from the Texas Capitol, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the monument was constitutional.