Or does it help create unity?
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Prayer has always been a presence on Capitol Hill. In the 19th century, religious services were actually held in the House chamber because it was the biggest space in a town still under construction and lacking public buildings.
“The House was used for church services, but it wasn’t a church,” says Donald Ritchie, former Senate historian. “It was used for funerals, but it wasn’t a funeral parlor. It was a space that was available.”
Those practices ended in the 1840s, when enough churches had been built to accommodate lawmakers and their families. What still survives from the First Congress of 1789 to this day – and which many secularists object to – are two chaplains, one for the House and one for the Senate, underwritten by US taxpayers. The chaplains, or a guest, offer a prayer at the opening of each day that Congress is in session, and they minister to the members, their staffs, and their families.
When he was the Senate historian, Mr. Ritchie says he often had to answer queries from outraged citizens and visitors who viewed the chaplaincy and opening prayers as a violation of the separation of church and state. But Article 1 of the Constitution allows the chambers to “chuse” their officers, and the chaplains have always been officers, the historian says. As the current Senate chaplain, Barry Black, notes on his web page, the chamber honors the separation of church and state, “but not the separation of God and State.”
The Supreme Court agrees. In 1983, it held that a chaplaincy and opening prayers in legislatures do not violate the Constitution (Marsh v. Chambers). In 2014, it upheld opening prayers at municipal meetings, so long as the practice is not discriminatory. That ruling could soon get a test. Dan Barker, an atheist who founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is suing the House chaplain and speaker for barring him from offering a secular invocation in Congress. The group also objects to the prayer breakfasts, which are organized by the lawmakers.