In America, public prayer is unifying. At memorials, Americans pray. At inaugurations, Americans pray. At funerals, Americans pray. Americans pray before going to war, and Americans pray when the fighting stops. Americans pray in times of sadness and times of joy.
America has a National Day of Prayer because the nation respects prayer’s unique role in the past, the present, and the future.
Prayer brings people together and changes lives. So many of those devastated by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center nearly ten year ago have found solace and healing in the power of prayer.
The act of prayer did in fact unify the nation on September 11, 2001 and in the following days and weeks as the country began to recover from the shock and loss caused by the attack. As Lt. Col. Henry Haynes, the Pentagon Chaplain on 9/11, put it, “I believe in the power of prayer. There was a lot of prayer going on [that day].”
Recall all of the people from different faiths who gathered in Yankee Stadium in the days following 9/11 for the “Prayer for America” event. Representatives of many faiths, including Christians, Jews, Sikhs, and Muslims, offered prayers. It was not divisive. It united us - all of us.
America has traditionally commemorated our best and worst days as a nation with prayer. At the close of the Revolutionary War, George Washington sent a letter to each governor of the new unionencouraging them with his “earnest prayer that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection.” In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln stated, “Fondly do we hope - fervently do we pray - that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.” Prayer has become part of the fabric that holds our nation together, from the first prayer in Congress in 1774 to theNational Day of Prayer celebrated each year.
In light of the power of prayer, its comforting effect on those suffering from the devastation of 9/11, and the prominent place prayer holds in our nation’s history, it is disconcerting that Mayor Bloomberg has decided to exclude clergy -- of all faiths -- and thus prayer from the 9/11 10th anniversary memorial service at Ground Zero.
Allowing prayer at this ceremony would not violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court has affirmed that public “prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.” Just this year, two federal courts threw out challenges to public prayer, rejecting a lawsuit aimed at shutting down “The Response” prayer service in Texas and upholding the constitutionality of the presidential proclamation for the National Day of Prayer.
In fact, Mayor Bloomberg’s own New York City Council is required by rule to open each meeting with an invocation, which typically consists of a prayer offered by a clergy member of a variety of faiths.
This is all anyone is asking for on 9/11: allowing members of various faith traditions to honor the memory of those who lost their lives a decade ago and to bring comfort to those who are still grieving. That is exactly what a memorial service should do, and it is most appropriate for this solemn occasion.
This article, co-authored by ACLJ attorney Matthew Clark, is crossposted at Jordan's "Religious Right Now" blog on the Washington Post. Also, please keep the conversation going by registering to comment on the Washington Post site to engage this timely debate on why Mayor Bloomberg should allow prayer at the 9/11 10th anniversary memorial service.