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Supreme Court allows prayer to stay in Bush inauguration

Updated Jan. 20, 2005

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Supreme Court turned down a bid Jan. 19 to have prayer removed from President Bush’s inauguration, handing atheist Michael Newdow a defeat and leaving intact the program for the Jan. 20 ceremony.

Without comment Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist refused Newdow’s emergency appeal from a lower court, which had also denied his request. In the previous week Newdow lost twice in both the district court and the appeals court. He argues that the inaugural prayer — in both the invocation and the benediction — violates the constitutional ban on government establishment of religion.

Newdow was involved last year in the much-publicized Pledge of Allegiance case, in which he argued for the removal of “under God.” The Supreme Court ruled then that Newdow did not have legal standing in the case, a ruling that left the pledge intact. He has since re-filed the suit along with eight co-plaintiffs.

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, praised Rehnquist’s decision.

“Mr. Newdow continues to be the mosquito of American public life,” Land told Baptist Press. “Like a mosquito, he’s not truly threatening, but he does irritate and exasperate. This was a silly suit by a person representing the farthest left margins of American society, and Chief Justice Rehnquist made a wise, prudent and expected decision.”

The American Center for Law and Justice, a pro-family legal organization, had filed friend-of-the-court briefs urging the court to allow prayer to remain.

“This is an important statement by the Supreme Court in upholding inaugural prayer –- a time-honored tradition that’s been a part of the history and heritage of our nation,” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ, said in a statement. “There simply is no constitutional conflict by permitting a member of the clergy to offer prayer for the president and the nation at the inaugural ceremony. We’re pleased that this issue has been resolved and look forward to an inaugural ceremony that includes prayer — a part of the tapestry of every inauguration since President Washington took his first oath of office in 1789.”

On Jan 14, U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled that prohibiting prayer “at this eleventh hour” would cause “considerable disruption in a significant, carefully-planned, national event.”

“Given the significant doubt that his action can proceed in the face of substantial questions relating to issue preclusion and standing, and the absence of a clearly established violation of the Establishment Clause, the Court concludes that Newdow has not satisfied the threshold requirement for extraordinary preliminary relief — a convincing showing of a substantial likelihood of success on the merits,” Bates wrote.

Bates noted that the practice of inviting clergy to deliver the inaugural prayer dates back nearly 70 years and “arguably can be traced back to the Inauguration of President George Washington in 1789.”

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