- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

September 11 changed everything. The way we live. The way we view our country and our faith.

As our nation continues the healing process and grapples with the uncertainty of what lies ahead, Americans are finding solace in their faith and are expressing their patriotism like never before. Students in classrooms across the nation are now reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The song "God Bless America" rocketed to the top of the music charts. There's a renewed spirit of patriotism and, for millions of Americans, a desire for spiritual renewal. As President Bush said not long ago, "The prayers of this nation are a part of the good that has come from the evil of September 11."

But what happened on that September morning and the ongoing battle against terrorism does not silence the critics those troubled by any patriotic expression that includes a mention of God.

Consider what has happened since the attacks.

In New York City, the Board of Education ordered school officials to remove a sign posted outside a high school in the Rockaways a community devastated by the World Trade Center attack that simply said "God Bless You." A teachers union representative complained, saying the phrase violated the separation of church and state. The board agreed, saying the sign was not "constitutionally permissible."

In California, the ACLU threatened to take a school district to court if it did not remove a sign posted outside an elementary school that read "God Bless America." The ACLU contended the words broadcast "a hurtful, divisive message." To the school district's credit, it didn't flinch, and the ACLU backed down.

In Madison, Wis., the school board voted to ban the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by students after some expressed concern about the phrase "One nation under God." The school board reversed itself and permitted students to recite the pledge after the faculty received more than 20,000 letters criticizing the ban.

Now, as our nation observes the National Day of Prayer today, don't be surprised if opposition surfaces critics claiming the observance creates a constitutional crisis.

Without question, there will be those who are offended by the National Day of Prayer. They will say it violates the Constitution and the separation of church and state.

But those critics should understand what most Americans already know that there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about such an observance. In fact, prayer has been an integral part of this country since the beginning. As a new nation was being formed, the Continental Congress designated a time for prayer in 1775. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln called for such a day. And, in 1952, President Truman signed into law a joint resolution by Congress declaring an annual National Day of Prayer. President Reagan amended it in 1988 to designate the first Thursday of every May as the National Day of Prayer.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment simply states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an Establishment of Religion … ." Nothing about the National Day of Prayer accomplishes such an establishment of religion. And there is no legal precedent to suggest that such an observance violates the Constitution.

In fact, the opposite is true. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly determined that the First Amendment protects religious speech. And the court has made it clear that the government cannot discriminate against religious speech simply because the speech is religious in nature.

In a landmark case in 1990 called Board of Education of Westside Community Schools vs. Mergens, the Supreme Court recognized that "there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect." At the same time, the First Amendment precludes any governmental effort to single out and censor the speech of private parties because the speech is religious. The Supreme Court in Mergens also said that "[t]he Establishment Clause does not license government to treat religion and those who teach or practice it, simply by virtue of their status as such, as subversive of American ideals and therefore subject to unique disabilities."

In light of the terrorist attacks, the theme of this year's National Day of Prayer is "America United Under God." And, organizers are hoping Americans will ponder this biblical verse from the Book of Psalms during this year's observance: "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble."

As Mr. Bush said at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, "Tremendous challenges await this nation, and there will be hardships ahead. Faith will not make our path easy, but it will give us strength for the journey."

All Americans should welcome the National Day of Prayer.

Jay Sekulow is chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice.

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