Prayer and schools: What about ‘ceremonial deism’? inauguration No. 1 on January 20, 2009.“Ceremonial deism” isn’t a term one comes across everyday. It means that, in certain cases, the government can invoke God.

Recall Obama’s first inauguration last year: He placed his hand on a Bible, held by his wife, as he recited the oath. This was the same Bible that Lincoln used in 1861 at his inauguration. You may also recall that both Chief Justice Roberts and Obama each flubbed the oath.

Roberts added the phrase “so help you God” to the oath. This, it turns out, was Obama’s request. inauguration No. 2 in White House Map Room on January 21.(There’s a long and controversial history behind this phrase that extends all the way back to an ongoing debate about whether George Washington used the phrase.)

Obama’s use of a Bible and the appended phrase are OK, say constitutional scholars, because they are examples of “ceremonial deism.” This term was proposed in the 1960s by the then-dean of the Yale Law School. It meant that “conventional and uncontroversial” expressions of religion by government were not violations of the Establishment Clause. (For more details, see Pew’s article on the subject of ceremonial deism.)

The doctrine of ceremonial deism says that our money can include “In God We Trust” on it or that a new legislative session can open with a prayer. These are considered so devoid of religious content and so routine and acceptable that they do not amount to government-sanctioned religious practices.

But one person’s ceremonial deism is not another’s. Some say the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance is ceremonial deism; others say it’s not.

When it comes to prayer in schools, where do you draw the line? Is all prayer—even prayer without any official school involvement—over the line?

Can student groups meet privately on school property and pray? Where do people draw the line in your community?

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