Atheists Want to Deny Congressmen First Amendment Rights

The American Humanist Association (AHA) is on the religious warpath again. AHA executive director Roy Speckhardt is using Soviet- and Nazi-style tactics against elected officials who want to exercise their First Amendment rights to pray. In fact, even if we did not have a First Amendment, elected officials and everyone else would have the right to the “free exercise” of religion. We don’t need that “right” granted to us by the State.

One of the reasons the AHA and Mr. Speckhardt are opposed to the Congressional Prayer Caucus because Congress opens and closes each session with prayer. Mr. Speckhardt claims that such actions weaken “the separation of church and state and discriminates against non-religious American[s].” He goes on to write that Congressman Randy Forbes pushed “unconstitutional” legislation like supporting the national motto “In God We Trust.”

The AHA has neither history nor the Constitution on its side.

On March 16, 1776, “by order of Congress” a “day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer” was called. The people were called on to “acknowledge the over ruling providence of God” and bewail their “manifold sins and transgressions, and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness.” (See here).

Congress set aside December 18, 1777 as a day of thanksgiving so the American people “may express the grateful feelings of their hearts and consecrate themselves to the service of their divine benefactor” and on which they might “join the penitent confession of their manifold sins . . . that it may please God, through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance.” Congress also recommended that Americans petition God “to prosper the means of religion for the promotion and enlargement of that kingdom which consists in righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.” (See here)

One of the first orders of business of the first Congress was to appoint chaplains. Bishop Samuel Provost and Reverend William Linn became paid chaplains of the Senate and House respectively. Since then, both the Senate and the House have continued regularly to open their sessions with prayer.

So how is it that offering prayers in Congress is a violation of the Constitution when the people who drafted the Constitution appointed chaplains to pray? The only reason the AHA can get away with their falsehoods is that most Americans have never been taught these historical facts.

The inauguration of George Washington was followed by “divine services” held in St. Paul’s Chapel in New York, “performed by the Chaplain of Congress.”1 The first Congress that convened after the adoption of the Constitution requested of the President that the people of the United States observe a day of thanksgiving and prayer:

“That a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.”

After the resolution’s adoption, Washington then issued a proclamation setting aside November 26, 1789, as a national day of thanksgiving, calling everyone to “unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”2

It’s interesting in Mr. Speckhardt’s letter to the Representatives serving in Congress never actually cites the First Amendment. Instead, he uses the “separation of church and state” language that is used as a substitute for the actual text of the First Amendment for the simple reason that its wording and history are contrary to the AHA’s constitutional challenge.

  1. Anson Phelps Stokes and Leo Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, one-volume ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 87. []
  2. Quoted in Stokes and Pfeffer, Church and State in the United States, 87. []