I recently was present for oral arguments where a pastor was representing himself pro se. The judge mentioned that a party associated with the case was absent due to family health reasons, and the pastor requested that the court observe a moment of silence for the family. Not knowing how to respond, the judge and the rest of the court awkwardly complied and bowed their heads until the pastor declared the moment over, while I looked on incredulously.
This episode with a pro se litigant was unusual, but Deity is regularly invoked in many courtrooms. Where I currently practice, it is common for a court to open with with an announcement such as "May God save the United States and this Honorable Court." Many judges and members of the bar bow their heads as this invocation is proclaimed. In many jurisdictions the swearing of an oath ends in "so help me God," a phrase that was recently challenged again with respect to the swearing-in of President Barack Obama. Religious references are also common in the legislative branch. Sessions of Congress and state legislatures are traditionally opened with a prayer.
The bizarre courtroom incident with the pastor made me consider my own position on religion in the courtoom and other government functions. Despite being a personally religious person, I have always felt somewhat uncomfortable with the institutionalization of religion. Perhaps this is due in part to having grown up in a region of the United States where Mormonism was a very small minority religion. I had a sense that whenever God was invoked in public, it was done in such a way and with language that was different from my own religious beliefs. I also identified at an early age that there was a certain amount of hostility or rejection associated with my denomination. I was a Mormon kid, and being Mormon was a little weird. I only encountered invocations or public religious observations occasionally, but whenever they occurred I was keenly aware that they represented a difference between everyone else and me.
But even though I'm not always comfortable with religious references in government, I don't think that they should be done away with entirely. I think it's important that the democratic process be a free marketplace of all ideas, religious or otherwise. Consequently, I generally think that the exclusion of all religious references in any branch of government is inappropriate, and contrary to the purpose and language of the First Amendment. My general rule of thumb is that personal statements of conviction should always be allowed.
Prayers before legislative sessions or "so help me God" oaths are usually called "de minimis" religious references by the Supreme Court, and the Court seems to take a fairly tolerant approach to these references, since they were common practices long before the United States was even formed. But this isn't an opinion that is universally shared. In January, MichaelNewdow (the same litigant who challenged the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance) sought to exclude a clergy invocation and benediction from the presidential inauguration and enjoin Chief Justice John Roberts from using the phrase "so help me God" in the presidential oath. Mr.Newdow had filed a similar lawsuit before at the second inauguration of President George W. Bush, and this most recent wasn't likely to prevail because he made all the same arguments.
I noticed that U.C. Berkley Law professor Eugene Volokh had an interesting thought about the prayers at the inauguration. He suggested that "a President's inviting a particular clergyman to say things at the President's inauguration might well be treated as an extension of the President's own right to express whatever views -- including denominationally specific views -- he wants to express as part of his own speech." This seems like it touches on my rule of thumb regarding personal expression of speech, although it may not be applicable to courtroom oaths or legislative prayers because the courts and the legislatures are not embodied in one person.
As you likely know, Mr. Newdow's lawsuit was again rejected and both the oath and the prayers went forward as planned. And thanks to a slip of the tongue by the Chief Justice and racial rhymes in the inaugural benediction, the references to Deity became the least controversial parts of the day.