Jay Sekulow, one of the leading conservative constitutional laywers in the country (and a Beliefnet blogger) was back at the Supreme Court this week fighting Michael Newdow’s attempts to block prayers at the inauguration. Sekulow notes that George Washington in his inaugural address asked for Divine support:

“The fact is that references to God at inaugurations date back to the very origins of this country….The Inauguration of the man who was ‘first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,’ was blessed with an invocation of Divine Aid by the very Chief Executive.”

Rev. Barry Lynn, one of the leading advocates of separation of church and state (and a Beliefnet blogger), countered that Newdow will lose the case but has the better argument:

Public events like presidential inaugurations, gubernatorial swearings-in and even city council meetings should be open to all. Everyone should feel welcome at these gatherings. When we include sectarian prayer at such events, we send the message that some believers are more welcome, even that they are better citizens. (Don’t bother arguing that exclusion of prayers is hostility toward religion, Jay. Anyone is free to pray on their own at any time during these events. It’s the government sponsorship I object to, not the praying.)

My view is that the case against the prayers would be stronger if it focused on two other points.
First, the attack would be more persuasive (in the court of historians if not the court of judges) coming from a religious minority than an atheist. The Founders were clear that they didn’t want government favoring one religion over another. But they often supported religion over irreligion.

Second, Newdow should have focused specifically on the disappearing diversity. Earlier in the 20th century, the Presidents made a point of including different religious tradition on the platform, in many years having a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew and a Greek Orthodox clergyman. Thus they were promoting religion in general, but not favoring one flavor. Prior to 1989, 16 of the 41 prayers delivered — or 39% — were offered by Protestants.
In recent years, we’ve had a smaller number of clergy and 12 out of the last 12 have been Protestant.
This makes it much tougher to be consistent with the American tradition of non-denominational “public religion.” The problem with Franklin Graham and Kirbyjon Caldwell in 2001 wasn’t that they uttered Christian sectarian prayers (with Graham asking the audience to “acknowledge You [Christ] alone as our Lord, our Savior and our Redeemer.”) Other preachers had prayed in Christ’s name in earlier years. The problem was that Graham and Caldwell gave those prayers and they were the only men of cloth up there.
To reduce it to short hand, if you want to have sectarian prayers, you have to have a bunch of pray-ers. If you only have a few clergy, they have to give broad, inclusive prayers — like the ones offered by George Washington. As with so many things, Washington had the right formula.
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