Ruling days before the inauguration of President Barack Obama, a federal court refused to block prayers and the use of the phrase “so help me, God” during the swearing-in ceremony.
The case was brought by Michael Newdow, an atheist activist best known for his legal efforts against the term “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Newdow, who filed similar, ultimately unsuccessful lawsuits against inaugural prayers in 2001 and 2005, was joined in the effort by 28 other individuals and 11 non-theistic groups.
U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled Jan. 15 that the plaintiffs could not prove they would be harmed by the prayers, which were delivered by pastors Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery. Walton also said he did not have authority over the Presidential Inaugural Committee, declaring it an independent entity and not an arm of the government.
The lawsuit, filed Dec. 30, drew an immediate response from attorneys general all over the country. All 50 filed a joint brief supporting prayers and the use of “so help me, God” during the inaugural.
The Austin American-Statesman reported that the brief was drafted by the staff of Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. Abbott released a statement reading, “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.”
Newdow, however, challenges that history. His brief points out that the Washington story is apocryphal at best. In fact, there is no evidence that Washington added those words to the oath.
The Constitution does not mandate use of the phrase. The presidential oath of office as found in Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution reads: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
There is also no evidence that presidents have historically invited outside clergy to lead prayers during the inaugural. Donald Ritchie, a historian at the Senate Historical Office, told Newsweek that the first such prayer was probably in 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited a Catholic priest to pray during his inaugural. The practice has been included ever since.