I had just concluded my prayer at the Dallas City Council meeting with these words “in the name of the one who came, and died, and rose again that we might have eternal life—Jesus Christ our Lord—amen” when a member of the council expressed his offense at the content of my prayer.
Had I, or the mayor of Dallas who had invited me, violated the so-called "establishment clause" of the First Amendment by endorsing Christianity before a legislative body?
The Supreme Court will answer that question this session in the case of Greece v. Galloway which deals with a similar situation involving the town board meetings of Greece, New York.
The High Court has already upheld the constitutionality of “legislative prayers” (Marsh v. Chambers, 1983), recognizing that such prayers are an important part of our nation’s history.
However, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the town of Greece, claiming that a disproportionate number of Christians offered the prayers (even though ninety percent of the town’s population is Christian and anyone was allowed to pray, including a local Wiccan) and the prayers contained too much Christian content.
The court utilized the“endorsement test” proposed by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 1989 that asks whether a government action could be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religion. The Second Circuit is convinced that the actions of the Greece town board fail O’Connor’s test.
Nevertheless, many legal observers expect the Supreme Court to overturn the Second Circuit’s ruling against Greece. Even the Obama administration’s solicitor general has sided with the town, joining half of the states and 85 members of the House who have also filed briefs supporting the town of Greece.
However, I and many other conservatives are hopeful that the Supreme Court will use the Greece case as an opportunity to issue a much more expansive opinion that will clarify the historical intent of the establishment clause and correct distortions of the First Amendment such as O’Connor’s phony “endorsement test” that have increasingly restricted religious liberty.
The First Amendment declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” The First Amendment prohibits the federal government from establishing a state religion but has absolutely nothing to say about local governments allowing prayers at city council meetings, nativity scenes in the town square, or invocations at high school graduations.
Subsequent court decisions that have prohibited such free expressions of religious beliefs are based on a gross distortion of the First Amendment.
Activist judges have replaced the word “Congress” with “government,” “establishment” with “endorsement, ” and “religion” with “Christianity” so that they can eradicate any Christian expression from the public square at the local,state, or national level.
Yet, a historical understanding of the First Amendment reveals that the sole concern of the founding fathers was preventing government from coercing citizens to worship in a state-sponsored church.
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, appointed by President James Madison in 1811, wrote “The real object of the [First]Amendment was . . . to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”
The Constitution prohibits Congress from establishing the Baptist church over the Presbyterian church as the state church in which all citizens are forced to worship. It is silent about prayers at city council meetings.
But what about the rights of the non-Christian council member who was offended by my prayer?The First Amendment guarantees that he cannot be forced to worship in my church, but offers him no protection from being offended by my prayer.
If citizens feel their local, state, or national leaders are becoming too overtly Christian, their remedy is to replace them at the ballot box, not to restrict the private and public free exercise of religion which is guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Dr. Robert Jeffress is a Fox News Contributor and pastor of the 11,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. His daily radio program "Pathway to Victory" is heard on 760 stations nationwide. He is the author of 20 books including, "How Can I Know: Answers to Life's 7 Most Important Questions."