Thanksgiving’s Little Constitutional Controversy

November 24, 2010

Tomorrow Thanksgiving will be celebrated across the United States. Traditionally, it is a time to give thanks for the harvest and express our thanks for our good fortune. The question is to express thanks to whom? There really is no doubt that this is a religious holiday, to the extent that it is a day when people express thanks to their “creator.” This idea bothers some, who question whether  a “religious” national holiday violates the First Amendment. Well, first of all, Thanksgiving isn’t a national holiday. We don’t have any of those in this country. See a  prior  post for more on this. It is a federal holiday which is also recognized by each of the fifty states.  That doesn’t mean it’s a constitutional holiday, though.

We all learned about the first pilgrim Thanksgiving in grade school. Since the formation of the nation, just about every President has given a Thanksgiving address,  and invariably “the creator” is thanked almost immediately. This site has the texts of many of those presidential addresses. George Washington began his like this: “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor…”

The issue that has occasionally been expressed is whether a federal holiday thanking God violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause. On its face, “thanking the creator” does not foster the establishment of any religion, but that is not the end of the story. The reason for this is a little letter Thomas Jefferson wrote back in 1802, where he coined the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state.” These words never appear in the Constitution, but they have been invoked countless times in arguing First Amendment issues.

Here’s a blog post with a good constitutional argument against Thanksgiving, citing James Madison extensively.  For a look at arguments supporting thanksgiving,  here’s a good place to start.

Or, you could just enjoy your turkey and decide to spend your time worrying about more important things.

{ 1 comment }

Virginia November 25, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Hi people!!! Happy Thanksgiving!!!! :) :)
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, and each yr I like to get into the mood-extend the holiday, as it were-by reading “Thanksgiving novels.” Unsurprisingly, all these stories are mostly about families, about coming together to heal old hurts and getting thanks for the gift of love. … .. :
Think You’re Far better Off Today Than You Were 3 Years Ago?

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